Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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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.

Living in the Light of the Lessons from Death and Dying

Frank Ostaseski in an interview with Rheanna Hoffmann about death and the process of dying, mentioned his book based on his experiences of being with a thousand people as they died.  His book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, provides five principles or guides for living life with integrity, meaningfully and in alignment with our true purpose.  Frank was the co-founder and director of a thousand-bed hospice, so his book is based on lived experiences and real stories of how people faced death, as well as the distillation of the “wisdom of death” from these deeply personal and moving experiences.

Frank maintains that death is the “silent teacher”, imparting understanding and wisdom about how we should live.  He expounds his ideas and principles in a number of recorded podcast interviews, including What Can Death Teach Us About Living Mindfully. His recoded talk at Google focused on his book through the theme, Inviting the Wisdom of Death Into Life.   A succinct explanation of the principles in his book, which he describes as “invitations to living”, is provided in his 26-minute edited interview with Steve Heilig of Palouse Mindfulness.

The five invitations to living learned from the dying

Frank emphasises that these invitations to living have been taught to him by the dying and by compassionately helping many hundreds of people with the process of dying.   Understanding the following five principles and putting them into practice enables us to live life fully and mindfully:

  1. Don’t wait – we assume that life will go on as it always has, that our health, wealth and relationships will persist into the future.  If nothing else, the Coronavirus should disabuse us of this belief and the associated perceptions.  There is a tendency to put off changing the way we live because of this belief in continuity.  However, living is precarious, nothing is certain.  We can become absorbed in the busyness of life and put off any change – avoiding the need to slow down and really experience life and relationships.  We can spend so much of the day planning our next activity or sequence of events. Frank maintains that we are reticent to fully “step into life” – “waiting for the next moment in life, we miss the present”.  Frank urges us not to wait till our death to find out the lessons of dying.
  2. Welcome everything, push nothing away – whether it’s grief, loneliness, boredom or suffering, there is a lesson to learn if we don’t push away the feelings, emotions and thoughts that pervade our life.  Frank suggests that we should welcome grief and fear and difficult feelings because these “moments” of discomfort are pivotal in our life for developing sustainable personal change, if we fully face them.  He spoke of the grief he experienced working with the dying and how he adopted meditation, bodywork (the touch of a practitioner on a source of physical pain in his body) and holding and rocking newly born babies (a life-affirming activity) as a way to face the full emotional, physical and mental experience of grief – it’s as if he ritually experienced the life cycle of birth, living and dying as a way to manage his overwhelming grief.  
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience – Frank made the point that in his work with the dying, the part of him that was most helpful was his vulnerability and helplessness because it acted as an “empathetic bridge to their experience”.  These “weaknesses” became his strengths and enabled him to be fully present to them, to be-with-them.  He has stated previously that authentic presence and compassionate listening are healing and supportive of people’s transition in both the challenges of living and of the dying process.  He asserts that none of us is perfect but that we can bring our whole self to whatever we are experiencing – leaving no part of our self out of the interaction.
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things – we can find a place to rest amidst the turmoil and tenuousness of life and despite overwhelming emotions that beset us.  The “place of rest” could be a breathing exercise, a ritual, mindfulness practice or reconnecting with nature.  Finding such a “place” is critical as a self-care approach for healthcare professional, particularly in these challenging times. Rheanna Hoffmann, who volunteered to work in the Emergency Department of a New York Hospital during the height of the Coronavirus, stated that this principle, explained in Franks’ book, helped her deal with the exhaustion, grief and overwhelm she experienced in helping suffering and dying patients while working under unimaginably difficult conditions. Frank also recounts the story of how he helped a woman to find a place of rest who was dying and experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, a struggle to breathe exacerbated by fear.  He asked her, “Would you like to struggle a little less?”  He then helped her to put her attention to the gap/pause in her breathing and began to pace her by breathing in and out with her.  He reports that “fear left her face” and she died peacefully.  Frank pointed out that none of the conditions had changed for her (including difficulty with breathing), only her relationship to her experience of dying.
  5. Cultivate a don’t know mind – this is not designed to encourage ignorance.  Frank quoted a Zen saying, “Ignorance is not just ‘not knowing something’ but the right thing”.  Ignorance is knowing the wrong thing and insisting on its truth and universality.  The principle is not about accumulating information (the “what”) but cultivating a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” – a mind that is curious and pursues the truth and understanding in everything.  Frank suggested that we should talk with our children about death and, in the process, learn from them (not tell them).  He recounts his experience as a Director of a pre-school when he organised for the children involved to go and collect dead things in the woods nearby.  He marvels at the insight of the children and their perceptiveness.  They had been discussing the theme of endings becoming beginnings, e.g. a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, when a four-year old girl said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous – they fall and make room for new leaves”.  Frank maintains that a “don’t know mind” is fluid and flexible and “infused with a deep interest to know” and to know what is true right now.

Reflection

Frank’s approach to fully facing all that life presents (both discomfort and joy) is in alignment with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s concept of Full Catastrophe Living and Frank’s personal process for handling his grief accords with Deepak Chopra’s recommendation that we adopt a ritual to symbolise our release from the stranglehold of grief.

Frank epitomises in his life and work what he advocates through his talks and video podcasts.  He pursues a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  For example, in addition to his book and public presentations sharing his knowledge and experience of the dying process and its lessons, he has established a creative approach to educating end-of-life carers through the Metta Institute.  His words and actions manifest a life of integrity, compassion and wisdom.

Steve Heilig, the person who interviewed Frank in one of the video podcasts mentioned above, has also found a way to live a life full of meaning and purpose.  One of his many mindfulness endeavours has been to collect resources and permissions from leading mindfulness practitioners, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, to enable him to provide a free, 8-week, online course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

As we grow in mindfulness, by employing the five principles that Frank espouses, we can live our lives more fully and expansively and truly aligned to our energy and purpose.  We can find our expansiveness and spaciousness which Frank evidenced with people who were dying – their capacity to find the personal resources to face their fear and death despite their belief that the challenge was beyond them.   We can also become a calming presence to others who are experiencing difficulties as we progressively overcome our own reactivity. If we develop the discipline of the daily practice of meditation, we can live in the light of the lessons of dying and death.

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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.

Healing Grief through Compassion and Love

Frank Ostaseski was recently interviewed during the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit by Rheanna Hoffmann on the topic, Grief and the Healing Power of Love and Compassion.  With so many deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus (410,000 at the time of writing), the issue of grief and its manifestations becomes increasingly prevalent.   Frank is the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (now called The Zen Caregiving Project) and founder of the Metta Institute designed to provide creative education in the art of “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.

Healthcare professionals may not have lost loved ones through the virus, but they can experience grief too with the loss of patients that they have been caring for – this is in addition to other stressors that challenge their resilience.  In his interview responses, Frank explained the nature of grief and the power of compassion and love to heal people who have experienced profound grief.

The nature of grief

Frank who has supported more than 1,000 people in the process of dying maintains that grief is not a single point but a process – an evolving process of “loss, losing and loosening”.  There is the initial shock of the loss that can result in physical collapse and total disorientation.  Shock impacts people differentially – some people may experience numbness, there is no “one way”.   Beyond the initial shock of the loss, is a process of “losing”, where in the midst of other things an overwhelming sense of loss returns accompanied by strong emotional and physical symptoms.  “Losing” can persist for many years and eventually become an intermittent event.  In the meantime, the process of “loosening” commences with progressive release of the hold that grief has over a person.

People grieve in different ways – some withdraw and have a strong desire to be alone with their grief, others experience tears and crying uncontrollably, while still others may take out their grief by aggression and violence (such as is occurring in the riots in America in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement).  Grief and our response may be aggravated in challenging times such as the pandemic where everyone is experiencing a form of “emotional inflammation”.

Frank maintains that grief has many faces, e.g. anger, rage, sadness, depression, fear and even regret.  He also suggests that grief results not just from the sense of loss of a loved one but also from the associated lost opportunities – a young life cut off in their prime, a missed opportunity to reconcile with a loved one, a lost chance to say goodbye or to be physically present with someone as they were dying.   For people exposed to dying and death as a result of the Coronavirus, there can be a collective grief brought on by the lost opportunity to save lives, as well as the lost opportunity of the lives lost.

Healing grief through love and compassion

The starting point for being able to show compassion towards the people experiencing grief is having an understanding of the nature of grief and its many forms of expression. It is important not to add to the stress of people who are grieving by communicating expectations of how their grief should be expressed.  Grieving is a very personal process and requires compassionate attending and listening, not the projection of personal preference.

Pema Chödrön discusses ”compassionate abiding” in our own grief and suffering as the pathway to expressing compassion for others.  Frank suggests that we need to “metabolize” our own fear and suffering by facing it fully, experiencing it in our body, mind and heart and converting it to compassion for others.  He maintains that when we can explore our own experience through self-observation and self-inquiry we can “build an empathetic bridge to other people’s experience”.  Otherwise we can be working out of our own distress and needs rather than the needs of others who are grieving.  Without this level of self-intimacy we can appear dishonest or disingenuous to others we are trying to help in their grief.

Frank explained that he has difficulty expressing self-compassion but has developed a number of processes that enable him to express compassion for others.  Each night before going to sleep, he focuses on the suffering of others – those who might be suffering through loneliness, those experiencing grief or those who are caring for others who are dying.  Through this process he feels love and warmth towards others and the emergence of his “innate compassion” that is broad and deep enough to absorb or dissolve his own experience of suffering.   In the morning, with his hand on his heart, he asks himself, “What would love have me do today?”

Reflection

Self-intimacy is a key to genuine compassion towards others who are grieving.  Compassion and love help to heal grief because they involve abiding fully with someone who is experiencing grief, not trying to fix them.  Our very presence, uncontaminated by unrealistic expectations of the other person, can be a source of healing just as “listening generously” can be.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop self-intimacy, calmness and peace and be better able to be present to and compassionate towards others.

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

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

Building 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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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.

Transformation through Meditation

Sohini Trehan writes about the transformative powers of a particular form of meditation – Bija Mantra.  This form of meditation uses specific sounds or mantras aligned to the seven chakras of the body.  Sohini suggests that the literal meaning of “mantra” is “to liberate one’s mind” and mantra meditations serve to “create transformation”.  She states that the emerging research in psychoacoustics reinforces the “vibrational energy” of sound and its healing power for mind, body and emotions. 

In a previous post, we discussed the experience of Tina Malia and her emergence from her “dark night of the soul” through the transformative power of Japa – in her case, the combination of the Ram mantra with the use of beads.  Tina spoke of her transformation from a total loss of meaning to a deep well of energy and creativity.   Some experts believe that the depth of depression experienced in the dark night of the soul is what is necessary to achieve a truly deep transformation.

This transformation occurs because the depth of depression derives from the fact that we become detached from our meaning anchors – all our constructs about meaning break down so that things like material success, being seen to be competent or creative or becoming famous or popular, cease to have meaning anymore.  As a result, we have to search inside ourselves for something deeper and more meaningful – a true purpose to our lives.   This purpose does not have to be ground-breaking or earthshattering – it has to be aligned to our specific life experience and our real gifts and contribute to something greater than ourselves.

Meditation brings true peace and transforms suffering

In an interview with Oprah, Thich Nhat Hahn maintained that meditation brings true peace, even in the midst of the turbulent waves of life.  He also stated that meditation develops compassion which, in turn, “transforms suffering in you and the other person”.  He suggested that what is needed is deep listening for understanding, what he calls “compassionate listening” – listening without judgment. By being fully present to the other person, we can enable them to release their pain and suffering.  In the process, we come to understand their perspective and deepen our understanding of our own perspective. 

Mindfulness meditation dramatically increases our response ability so that we are not overcome by difficult emotions,  chained by resentment or captured by envy.  Meditation transforms reactivity into a positive way to respond  – overcoming our habituated way of reacting and developing our power and energy.  Likewise, as Rick Hanson argues, meditation can transform fear into resilience.

Reflection

It is so easy to undervalue the transformative power of meditation because we often adopt a piecemeal approach to developing the habit of meditation.  The real transformative benefits of meditation are experienced when it is practiced daily over an extended period.  This requires discipline and a sound appreciation of the power of meditation to transform our lives, our happiness and our energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation (especially mantra meditation) and mindfulness practices throughout our day, we will experience the pervasive effect of meditation on our lives.  As Oprah commented to Thich Nhat Hahn, other people will feel calm just by being in our presence.

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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.

Strategies for Couples to Cope While Working at Home during Quarantine

In a previous post I discussed Rick Hanson’s ideas about the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges facing couples working from home during the quarantine conditions brought on by the Coronavirus.  In his podcast, Coping with Quarantine, Rick also explored strategies for couples to cope with these challenges.  His suggested strategies focused strongly on connection, contribution, control (inner and outer) and compassion.

Strategies for couples to cope with the challenges of working together at home during social isolation

  • Connection with others: the fundamental principle underpinning physical distancing is avoidance rather than contact and connection.  However, this does not prevent us from connecting with each other as a couple, with our family and friends or with colleagues.  All of the remote communication strategies are available to us – online video calls, telephone, social media and email.  There can be a tendency to let the physical distancing principles impact the rest of our behaviour.  However, now is the time to reconnect with others who are also feeling socially isolated.  As a couple, connection can take the form of increased hugs, considerateness, words of love and appreciation and thoughtful touch – all of which builds the relationship. It also involves avoiding the temptation to escalate an argument or conflict to prove you are right or to assuage your pride.  Fundamental to connection with your partner is listening for understanding, not interrupting but being open and vulnerable to the thoughts and feelings of your partner.  As Rick points out, listening provides you with the time to deeply connect with the other person and enables them to experience calm and clarity.  He reiterates Dan Siegel’s view that deep listening enables the communicator to “feel felt by the other person”.
  • Connection to nature:  we are connected to nature on multiple levels and it is possible through mindfulness practices, including mantra meditation, to experience this connection at a deep level.  When we experience our deep connection to nature, we can feel inspired, energised, positive and calm.  The very act of breathing and walking in nature regenerates our physical systems, clears our mind and helps us to reduce the power of our negative emotions.  Nature has its own healing capacity which we can tap into in multiple ways – if only we would stop long enough to let it happen.  
  • Contribution: there are so many people in need as a result of the pandemic.  There are also endless ways to contribute and help others, to draw on our creativity and resourcefulness.  For example, despite the lockdown in the Northern Territory in Australia, Arnhem Land artists are offering a series of free online concerts to lift people’s spirits and reinforce their connection to the land and the resilience of nature.  Thirty of Australia’s top singing stars have also collaborated to provide an online concert from their homes, Music From The Home Front, that is dedicated to people who are in the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  Another exemplar of contribution in adversity is Nkosi Johnson who was born with HIV in South Africa and died at the age of 12.  In his short life, he dedicated himself to fighting, locally and globally, for the rights of HIV affected people in South Africa and beyond.  Nkosi is quoted as saying, “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are”.
  • Controlling yourself and your environment: in times of crisis it is important to develop a sense of control over our difficult emotions and our immediate environment.  There is a growing pool of advice on managing anxiety and achieving mental and emotional balance during these times of uncertainty and social isolation.  In times of uncertainty we can achieve a sense of agency by controlling aspects of our immediate environment – whether that be tidying or renewing our garden, removing clutter from our workspace, developing new skills or getting our finances and accounts in order.
  • Compassionate thoughts and action: in the section above on contribution, I stressed the importance of finding ways to help and to take compassionate action.  However, action is not always possible because of our personal circumstances, including being confined to home as a high-risk person.  This is particularly where loving kindness meditation can be used to experience compassion towards others who are suffering and/or experiencing grief.  Everyday there are stories of individuals and families experiencing heart-breaking situations brought on by the Coronavirus.  We can keep these people in our thoughts and prayers and feel with them.

Reflection

Creating connection, making a contribution, achieving self-control and control over our immediate environment and offering compassion and loving kindness are ways forward for individuals and couples restricted to working from home.  Meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices will help us to grow in mindfulness and to develop the necessary self-awareness, awareness of others, self-regulation and presence of mind and body to bring these positive aspects into our lives as individuals and couples.

Chris James captures the essence of connection to nature in the songlet Tall Trees on his Enchant album:

Tall trees

Warm fire

Strong wind

Deep water

I feel it in my body

I feel it in my soul

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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.

Developing Compassionate Action through Mindfulness and Listening to Personal Stories

Tara Brach recently spoke to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the theme of How Mindfulness Can Heal the World.  This discussion took place as part of the online Radical Compassion Challenge held over ten days in January 2020.  Jon’s central theme was that that it is not enough “to sit on the cushion” and meditate at a time when the world is experiencing such suffering, injustice, racial divisions and hatred; the challenge is to take compassionate action, activated by our growing awareness of our own reality and that of the world around us developed through mindfulness.

Many doors to one room

Jon argued that there are “many doors to the one room” – not only in terms of how we deal with the “agitation” we experience in today’s world but also in terms of how we individually respond by taking action.  Mindfulness can help us deal with our fear and anxiety either through experiencing that fear at a fully emotional and bodily level or by examining the fear conceptually to see its origins and its manifestation in our behaviour e.g. by blaming or judging.  The compassionate action we take will depend on our circumstances, our abilities and our self-awareness.  Jon, for example, stated that the Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed was a political and compassionate action designed to relieve suffering at a time when professors at his institution, MIT, were developing weapons of mass destruction for the Vietnam War.  Tara, too, has taken compassionate action in many ways, including the establishment of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company with a mission “To Wake Up the World”.

The role of personal stories and mindful listening

Both Jon and Tara highlighted the need to hear the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves (e.g. in terms of their race, education, background, mental health, intellectual and physical abilities, careers, opportunities and overall wellness).  While they acknowledge that mindfulness is necessary to develop awareness of ourselves and the world around us, it is insufficient by itself to stimulate compassionate action.  Personal stories of suffering in its many forms can help us identify how we can take action and provide the emotional stimulus to act.  Stories in the mental health arena, such as What It’s Like to Survive Depression … Again and Again, can stimulate compassionate action.

Mindfulness can help us to develop our life purpose, build resilience and develop creativity but the real challenge is to channel these into compassionate action.  We are sure to encounter blockages such as our unrealistic expectations, biased assumptions, fear of failure and mistakes, but our growing awareness can help to overcome these.  The challenge is to find the momentum to begin and to revisit our motivation to sustain our effort and have a real impact on some aspect of the suffering of others.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of the suffering and pain of people in the world around us.  This awareness can translate into compassionate action if we listen mindfully to the stories of people who are less privileged than ourselves.  Self-awareness can heighten our acknowledgement of how much we are privileged in so many ways and help us to identify both an arena for personal action and a point of intervention.  This will demand overcoming procrastination and the fears that hold our inaction in place.

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

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

The Lifelong Journey into Inner and Outer Awareness

Diana Winston in her book , The Little Book of Being, suggests that if we let our meditation and mindfulness practices slip, our achievement of natural awareness will diminish and the change in this direction will become “dormant”.  She argues for “lifelong practice” to keep “our meditation vibrant and interesting” (p.206).

The lifelong journey into inner awareness

There are times when we gain insight into who we really are and how we respond to various stimuli.  We may surprise ourselves when we discover the level of resentment we still carry towards someone for an action that occurred many years ago; or we might gain insight into the ways we express anger covertly; or unconsciously seek the approval of others.  These insights gained throughout our journey into inner awareness through meditation and mindfulness practices can be translated progressively into behavioural change.

We might gain clarity about the factors influencing our responses – we come to an understanding of the influence of early parental criticism on our current behaviour; or time spent away from our parents when very young (e.g. under five); or loss of a sibling; or being a child of an alcoholic parent.  While our understanding grows of the impact of these influences, it takes a lifelong journey to break free of the hold of these influences and to translate these insights into new behaviours.

We might experience what Tara describes as a “waking up” and the associated deep shift inside ourselves which is difficult to explain but finds expression in increased tolerance of others, heightened sensitivity or a readily accessible stillness and calm in times of crisis. Despite these shifts, we might still be prone to anger when caught in traffic while rushing to get somewhere; still interrupt people’s conversation to divert the conversation to ourselves; still fail to express our real feelings; or still indulge in any other form of inadequate or inappropriate behaviour.  Despite the experience of a deep personal shift in inner awareness, we have not arrived at the end of the journey because meditation is not a “quick fix” – it’s a pathway to guide us on the journey into the unknown.

The lifelong journey into outer awareness

Through our meditation and mindfulness practices, we can increase our natural awareness – attain increasing awareness in the present moment of what and who is around us.  We can begin to appreciate the beauty of a sunrise as it occurs and bask in its unique configuration and colour; we can be increasingly cognisant of, and sensitive to, the pain of others; we can become aware of how grateful we are for the things that we have and/or can do in life – and yet, at other times, we may be oblivious of what is around us (the beauty of nature or the sounds of birds) and fail to notice, or act to relieve, someone’s suffering or pain because of self-preservation.

Outer awareness grows over time with regular practice but can become blurred by the intensity of our thoughts or feelings – the inner fog.  We need to continually pull back the screen of our self-preoccupation and self-projection to allow the light of natural awareness to shine on the world and people around us.  Outer awareness requires a lifelong journey into wonder through growing curiosity and openness (repressing the need to judge).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and mindfulness practices, our natural awareness grows so that we can be more in-the -moment.  We can gain progressive insight into ourselves; the influences shaping our behaviour and responses; and attain ever increasing inner awareness to the point of experiencing a major shift or “waking up”.  We can broaden our outer awareness and our attunement to, and connection with, other people. All the time, though, we will develop a deepening insight into how long the journey is to attain inner and outer awareness – the realisation of the need for a lifelong journey.

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Image: Sunrise at Wynnum, Queensland 10 July 2019

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

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

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

Can You Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX 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.