Preventing Alzheimer’s – It’s Not What You Think

Kirkland Newman, researcher, writer and philanthropist, has established the MIndHealth360 website to make free resources and solutions available to anyone who wants to access information on mental health issues.  She shares her vision of an integrative approach to mental health through her advocacy of functional medicine psychiatry – an approach that does not just look at symptoms but explores root causes of illnesses.  Foundational to her approach is the recognition of the need to integrate our inner life, biochemical elements and lifestyle/behavioural approaches.  Her revolutionary approach to integrative mental health derives from family and personal experiences of disintegrated and injurious pharmaceutical treatments for postnatal depression.  Kirkland discovered the lasting benefits of integrative medicine (also called functional medicine) 11 years after suffering severe postnatal depression and has dedicated herself to sharing the benefit of this approach with others. 

Kirkland’s MindHealth360 website provides a comprehensive discussion of factors that could, in combination, be contributing uniquely to an individual’s mental health issues – these potential contributors have been categorised under the three main areas of lifestyle/behavioural, psycho-spiritual and biochemical factors.  Her documentation of these contributors is enriched by video podcasts of her interviews with leading experts on integrative mental health.  In this post, I want to explore one interview that covers the groundbreaking work of Dr. Dale Bredesen and Dr. Kat Toups on preventing and reversing Dementia (including Alzheimer’s – the most prevalent form of Dementia).  Dale is the author of The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Programme to Prevent and Reverse the Decline of Dementia and The Practical Plan to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline at Any Age.

Misconceptions about the nature of Alzheimer’s

Dale, who is a world-famous neurologist, was at pains to point out that the medical profession has completely misconstrued Alzheimer’s and led people astray into believing that it cannot be prevented or reversed.  His fundamental proposition aligns with Kirkland’s integrative medicine  approach.  He contends, for example, that the medical profession is treating Alzheimer’s as a simple disease rather than a complex one – he likens this perspective to treating Alzheimer’s like playing checkers instead of playing the more complex game of chess.   He argues that even the latest approved FDA Alzheimer’s drug will only slow the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but does not provide improvement.  He suggests that this disintegrated pharmaceutical approach is like fixing one hole in a ceiling riddled with more than 36 holes. 

He argues, based on successful clinical trials with his team, that there are four major areas that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s:

  1. Inflammation (which can result from multiple different sources such as poor dental care)
  2. Toxins (including air pollution and household mould)
  3. Energetics (a technical term covering aspects such as blood flow, level of oxygen and presence of ketones)
  4. Nerve growth and neuron support (called “trophic support”, the presence of molecules that help neurons to develop and sustain necessary connections) – this includes hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, as well as nutrients such as Vitamin D.

Success in terms of Dale’s team means actually preventing and/or reversing the progress of Alzheimer’s.  The clinical trials of his team provide considerable proof that Alzheimer’s is reversible if you adopt an integrative approach which includes a battery of tests covering the four areas mentioned above and other aspects such as measurement of cognitive impairment (using MRI procedures and the MoCA Cognitive Assessment Test).  Added to these more quantitative approaches is discussion with a patient’s partner to discover whether they have observed any noticeable change in the person being assessed.

Dale argues for this more integrated “cognoscopy” approach and maintains that anyone over 45 years of age should seek out such comprehensive assessment of cognitive impairment.  He maintains that the term “Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)” is, in fact, misleading as this condition constitutes an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s (not an early stage as the name suggests).  Dale explains that his team has identified four stages in the development of Alzheimer’s:

  • Phase 1 – No symptoms but impairment detectable on a PET Scan (can occur 20 years prior to assessment of MCI)
  • Phase 2 – Subjective assessment – you know something is wrong but impairment is not detected by standard tests
  • Phase 3 – Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) as measured on tests such as the MoCA mentioned above.
  • Phase 4 – Final stage of advanced symptoms that are adversely impacting your daily activities.

Preventing and reversing Alzheimer’s

Dale contends, based on the improvements in Alzheimer’s patients during clinical trials, that Alzheimer’s is reversible particularly if cognitive impairment is identified and addressed in its early stages.  In the trials, the researchers chose people who were assessed as having Mild Cognitive Impairment (that is, with MoCA scores of 19 or less, but not including those in the zero to 5 range).  The results show that 84% of the patients actually improved their cognitive assessment, despite the intervention of the pandemic (a summary of the results is provided at 23.48 mins in the video podcast).

Dale states that a “one size fits all approach” to treatment is totally inadequate because of the considerable variability amongst individuals in relation to the four major areas discussed previously (inflammation, toxins, energetics and nerve/neuron support).  In concert with Dr. Kat Toups, he states that Alzheimer’s is also preventable if we look to maintain our health holistically having regard to the key lessons identified from their personal experience, research and clinical practice. 

Reflection

These insights on Alzheimer’s, developed through evidence-based trials, remind us of the need to access the wisdom of the body and to consciously adopt a self-care plan.  It also means that it is desirable to be proactive in obtaining professional assessments of our physical and mental health.  Kirkland reminds us that we need to attend to our “inner life”, especially negative thoughts and beliefs that over time can result in the release of stress hormones that “can cause further hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances”.   She argues for the use of meditation and mindfulness to manage our thought patterns and beliefs, as these improve self-awareness and self-regulation.

We can explore our inner landscape as we grow in mindfulness through Tai Chi, mantra meditation, yoga or other mindfulness practices.  Kirkland contends that mindfulness can help us to develop emotional regulation as we become aware of our thought-feelings patterns and learn to break the habit loop.

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Image by Mirosław i Joanna Bucholc 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.

Note: The Content of this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Life is Like Playing Tennis

Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint.  As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared.  Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.

When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face.  In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface.   In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.

I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s.  I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching).   As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age.   I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game.  I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday –  a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight).   This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.  

They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation.  Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus.  This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game.  It means  that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes

To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand.  Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game.  Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go.  As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.  

Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy.  I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.

My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:

  1. As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets).  There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything.  As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing.   This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
  2. When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions.  If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different.  Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body).  I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
  3. Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis.  Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes.  But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis.  So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
  4. Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect.  Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob). 
  5. The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself.  I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play.  When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
  6. Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving.   In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level.  Now I am a lot slower off the mark.  I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists).  I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline.  In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
  7. I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy.  I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis.  This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.

Reflection

I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way.  For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection.  AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis.  I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation.  There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process.  I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.

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Image by Tonny Nijkrake from Pixabay

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

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

Being Mindful 0f Our Thoughts

Tom Heah presented a guided meditation podcast on Mindfulness of Thoughts through the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  Tom reminds us that we are often lost in thought either about the past or the future – all of which detracts from fully experiencing the present moment.  In relation to the past, we might be absorbed by regrets about what we have done or failed to do; disappointed that certain outcomes (sporting, academic or otherwise) did not meet our expectations; or depressed about a broken relationship or lack of achievement or advancement.  In relation to the future, we might be worried about the unintended consequences of our words and/or actions; concerned about loss of physical/mental capacities; or anxious about our financial situation or the pervasiveness of the pandemic. 

Tom Heah is an occupational therapist and an experienced meditation trainer and practitioner with many years’ experience training facilitators of programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy).   He has a low-key and reassuring way of facilitating meditations and provides strong encouragement to “have a go” and try different approaches.

Guided meditation

Tom begins the guided meditation by suggesting that we focus first on “arriving” – being really present in body, emotions and mind.   He encourages us no matter what our posture is (e.g. sitting, standing, lying down or walking) to become very conscious of our bodily sensations – are we bringing any physical tension or tightness to the meditation?  He suggests we welcome any feelings that we may have at the start and to acknowledge their existence without blame or concern to shift them.  As part of this grounding process, Tom asks us to tune into sounds around us without interpreting them or seeking to evaluate them in terms of pleasant or unpleasant – acknowledging that these sounds just exist outside of ourself but within our soundscape.

Tom then uses our bodily sensations as an anchor before moving onto the potentially disarming and distracting element of our thoughts.  He encourages us to feel the solidness beneath our feet (whether through sensing the floor or the earth).  He switches our focus to our palms – firstly, placing our palms downturned on our lap, followed by having them in an upright position and becoming aware of the different sensations associated with these alternative positions (e.g. tightness, tingling or warmth).   This process can be followed by a full body scan moving from the top of our head to the souls of our feet.

When we have achieved some level of groundedness and being present to what is, Tom suggests that we become aware of our thoughts – their content, focus and associated feelings.  He draws on the work of Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, to assert that thoughts lead to action that, in turn,  lead to consequences.  To change the consequences, we need to change our thoughts but the starting point is awareness of our thoughts, their patterns and their reactivity to negative triggers.  Joseph maintains that awareness of our thoughts leads to an “opening of the mind”.

Associated with our thoughts are emotions that are manifest in our body.  Tom encourages us to return to our anchor, bodily sensations, to tap into the embodiment of our thought-provoked emotions.  Again, we can become aware of the bodily sensations associated with particular emotions (e.g. anger can be reflected in muscular spasms or tightness; depression may be experienced as inertia; and nonspecific anxiety can manifest as fibromyalgia).

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness and become more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can learn to accept what is and achieve a level of groundedness and emotional control.  Associated with these outcomes are increased resilience and heightened creativity in dealing with challenging situations and experiences.

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Image by Engin Akyurt 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.

Managing Your Thoughts with Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Mindfulness Educator at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Working with Thoughts.  Diana reminds us that mindfulness involves paying attention in the midst of present moment experience and doing so on purpose and with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and acceptance.  She highlights the role of thoughts in our life and the possibility that they have been intensified and accelerated by the local and global experience of the pandemic.  Thoughts can arise anywhere, at any time, and in any location.  When we are in isolation, our thoughts may be about what we are missing out on or express fear about what might happen to us. 

Our thoughts can be helpful and highly productive at times leading to creative endeavours, compassionate action, or timely interventions in our own life or that of others.  Alternatively, they may be decidedly unhelpful, leading to self-loathing, inaction, or continuous suffering.  Thoughts are integral to our human existence – we have active brains constantly processing information coming through our senses.  We can manage our thoughts through mindfulness meditation if we understand how our thoughts can distract us and take over our everyday experience.

A fundamental principle espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn is that “we are not our thoughts”.  Diana refers to the related Bumper Sticker that reads, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.  We can easily become caught up in negative self-thoughts that become an endless cycle of devaluing ourselves and what we achieve in our daily lives.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to experience self-compassion and develop a balanced sense of our uniqueness and our accomplishments.

We can become “lost in thought”, unaware of what is going on around us or inside us.  This preoccupation with our thoughts can lead to self-absorption, a lack of awareness and insensitive words and actions.  We can often relate to James Joyce’s comment in The Dubliners that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.

A guided meditation to manage your thoughts – returning to your body

In her meditation podcast, Diana encourages you to focus on your body.  She starts with a focus on posture and the sensation of your feet on the ground or floor and suggests that you first take a few deep breaths to help ground you in the present.  Her light body scan helps you to be aware of tension points in your body and to release any uptightness that may have resulted from your thoughts. You are encouraged to be conscious of any manifestation in your body of any unhelpful or harmful thoughts and to let them go.

Release from your negative thoughts and attendant painful bodily sensations is achieved through focusing on your meditation anchor.  You might begin with a focus on your breathing and progress to deep listening to sounds (without attempting to think about the source or to explore their emotional impact on you).  Diana suggests that using your bodily sensations as an anchor can help to ground you in your body which exists in the present moment.  You can focus on a particular part of your body to achieve this grounding, e.g., the heaviness in your feet, the tingling in your arms or the sensation of energy flowing through your conjoined fingers.

Your meditation anchor provides a means of keeping you connected to your body and to stop you drifting away in your thoughts.  It becomes a point of continuous return – constantly revisiting your anchor builds your capacity to control your thoughts and develops your “awareness muscle”.

Diana also recommends “labelling your thoughts” – identifying what type of thinking process you are involved in, e.g., planning the next day, evaluating someone else’s performance, criticising another’s behaviour, or indulging in self-criticism.  Like naming your emotions, labelling your thoughts enables you to tame them and create some distance from your thought process.  Overtime with meditation practice, you can begin to discern any regular thinking pattern such as my pattern of continuously planning my “next steps” during the day.

Using imagery in meditation to dissolve your thoughts

Imagery in meditation can also help you to manage your thoughts.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that you view your thoughts as bubbles in boiling water that burst as they reach the surface of the water.  Diana uses clouds as an image for your thoughts.  She suggests that you view the sky itself as the openness and expansiveness of your mind while your thoughts are passing clouds.  Sometimes the clouds are heavy and dark bringing a sense of sadness or overwhelm; other times the clouds might be wispy and flighty leaving a sense of lightness and joy.  You can imagine the clouds coming and going, passing you by as you stay grounded in your body.

Using substitution in meditation to change your thinking

Diana encourages you at an appropriate time to cultivate compassionate thoughts or gratitude to push aside negative thoughts that persist.  Compassion can enable you to substitute thinking about yourself with kind thoughts towards others who may be experiencing difficulty or suffering.  Gratitude pushes aside any thoughts of resentment or envy and enables you to savour what you have in your life.  These healthy ways of thinking can lead to happiness, ease, and wellness.

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation enables us to move from being captured by our thoughts to being grounded in our body.  It builds the capacity to be fully present to the richness of the present moment – whether that is being alone in our room, experiencing the stillness and silence of nature or interacting with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively gain control over our thoughts and become more open to the possibilities in our life.  Freed from the tyranny of expectations and our own thoughts, we can experience happiness and the ease of wellness.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs 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.

Insight Meditation for Peace and Happiness

Mark Coleman offers an insight meditation podcast as part of the extended bonuses of the upgrade version of the Nature Summit.  He introduces the guided meditation as a mindfulness practice that is in line with the Vipassana tradition which seeks to develop deep personal insight to gain a peaceful, happy, and productive life.  The Vipassana meditation approach involves in-depth insight practice over ten days in a residential training environment with a rigid discipline code designed to remove all external distractions and facilitate sustained awareness.

Insight meditation focuses on exploration of  our inner landscape by paying attention to aspects of life as it is experienced – whether that is our breathing, our listening, or our bodily sensations.  It seeks to enable the practitioner to “see things as they really are” and not be blinded by self-delusion, difficult emotions, negative thoughts, or intense bodily sensations.  This intense self-observation and self-exploration highlight the interdependence of mind, body, and emotions.

Guided insight meditation

Mark’s light-touch, 30-minute meditation utilises some of the principles of Vipassana without the rigidity of the discipline code or the residential requirement.  His approach in the guided meditation is intended “to bring awareness to every aspect of your experience” as you are experiencing it.  It builds on and deepens mindfulness of breathing and extends paying attention to sounds and bodily sensations.  It has a similar slow-burn focus to Vipassana meditation to enable receptivity to what is occurring and how it is being experienced.  It takes “awareness” to another level.

At the hear of Mark’s approach is the desire to help you fully understand the mind-body connection and identify and eliminate patterns of thinking, sensing, feeling, and interpreting that cloud your connection to self and the world around you.  It is heavily embedded in your bodily experience and awareness of that experience.

Mark begins by having you focus first on your posture and any tightness in your body – encouraging you to progressively release tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, stomach, and the muscles in your face and around your eyes.  Throughout the meditation he encourages you to not only be aware of aspects of your experience but be conscious of this focused awareness – being conscious that you are being aware, paying attention not only to the content of your awareness but also the process of being aware.

A graduated approach to paying attention

Mark begins the actual guided meditation by having you focus on the sounds that surround you and being conscious that you are actively listening.  He discourages interpreting the sounds, evaluating them as good or bad or thinking about the sounds (e.g., trying to work out where they are coming from).  He suggests that you “stay with the direct experience of hearing” so that you can be not only aware of the sounds but also the inevitable silence that occurs between them.

He then moves on to have you shift your attention to the experience of breathing, noting the qualities of your breathing – hurried or extended, smooth or stilted, deep or shallow.  As part of this intense but relaxed focus, he then gets you to pay attention to each breath as it is occurring – through a sustained focus on each in-breath, out-breath, and the pause between.  He suggests that you maintain a general awareness of your body as you await the next in-breath entering your body    through your nose.  At this stage, he reinforces his intention to help you “know what’s happening as it is happening”.

There will be times when you become “lost in thought” and lose your focus – this provides the opportunity to build awareness of your habituated thinking behaviour and become conscious of any pattern in your thoughts.  Constantly returning to your desired focus progressively builds your “awareness muscle”, something that is a widespread deficit in this era of incessant, intrusive, and sustained interruptions and distractions.

In the latter stages of the guided meditation, Mark addresses the issue of bodily sensations.  Again, the aim here is to build awareness through direct, conscious experience of what is happening for you.  So, Mark has you focus not only on the nature of the bodily sensation (unpleasant or pleasant) but also your relationship to it – how you are relating to the sensation, e.g., with avoidance, resistance, rejection, or persistence.  Strong feelings, including pain, will arise at different stages but this is natural as the inner barriers are removed and the sensation is experienced and explored directly.  Mark maintains that this level of engagement can lead to “ease”, no matter what you are experiencing.  Ultimately, it involves being honest and open with yourself about what you are experiencing.  This personal truthfulness underpins the GROW approach to overcoming mental health issues and a “disordered life”.

Clarity about your life purpose

The benefits of insight meditation include the experience of peace and happiness and clarity about your life purpose.  As the clutter of thoughts, sensations and emotions reduce, you are able to gain greater clarity about how you can contribute to making life better for other people,  You become clearer about your core skills, extent of your knowledge and the breath of your experience and can identify ways to contribute from this position of increased self-awareness.  Happiness is intensified when you can utilise your core attributes in pursuit of a purpose beyond yourself.

Reflection

Insight meditation uses our breathing as the anchor to enable us to explore our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.  The discipline of constantly returning to our breath when distractions occur helps to keep us grounded in the present experience.  This self-exploration highlights our personal barriers and how we react to what we are perceiving and experiencing in life.

As we grow in mindfulness though insight meditation, we gain a deepened self-awareness, heightened self-regulation and clarity about our life purpose.  This, in turn, engenders sustainable peace, happiness and productivity.
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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.

Being Mindful of Breathing

The upgrade version of the Nature Summit provides a number of meditation podcasts that offer a range of guided meditations.  In one of these, Mark Coleman – meditation teacher, coach, and therapist – leads a guided meditation on the Mindfulness of Breathing.  This is one of three meditations that he offers as an upgrade bonus that normally make up his CD meditation series, The Art of Mindfulness: Meditations for Awareness, Insight, Relaxation and Peace.  Mark is a co-founder of The Mindfulness Training Institute and the Nature Summit.

A guided meditation on the mindfulness of breathing

Mark’s meditation on breathing begins with encouraging you to adopt a comfortable position and become conscious of the pressure of your feet on the floor.

He then provides a series of mindfulness activities designed to heighten awareness of breathing and its beneficial effects on mind and body.  His instructions for this mindful breathing practice are below:

  • Begin with a light body scan checking for, and releasing, any point of tension.  You can scan the more  common places of tension – your shoulders, neck muscles, face and eye muscles, feet and ankles.  I find that typically my shoulders are raised and tense, so I have to learn to let go at this stage of the meditation.
  • You can now focus on an area of your body where you can sense your breathing – it could be the flow of air in and out of your nose, the undulation of your chest or the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Try to pay attention to your breath and how you are experiencing it – fast or slow, deep or shallow, long or short. The idea is not to try to control your breath but just observe how it is for you.
  • Mark suggests that once you have been able to focus on a location of your experience of breathing that you take time to pay full attention to the in-breath and then the out-breath – just focusing on how they are occurring.
  • You can then move on to observing the gap or silence between your in-breath and your out-breath – lengthening the gap if you desire.  Mark notes that during this stage of the breathing meditation (or one of the earlier stages) it is normal to be beset with distractions from your focus on breathing – images, emotions, planning, questioning, going over the past or thinking about the future.  He suggests that when you notice a distraction, name it for what it is without self-criticism and return to your focus. He maintains that noticing the distraction and its nature in the moment is actually an act of mindfulness (paying attention on purpose in the present moment and doing so non-judgmentally).  By naming the type of distraction, you may actually observe a pattern in your distracted thinking (mine is typically “planning”).
  • If strong bodily sensations arise, you can put attention on breath in the background while you deal with the sensation such as pain, tingling or soreness.  Similarly, if a strong emotion occurs, you can temporarily focus on it, name the emotion, and explore its bodily manifestation.   Mark suggests that you avoid letting your thinking about the emotion take over but stick with its actual physical manifestation.  Thoughts can reinforce an emotion, embed it more deeply and make it difficult to return to your focus on breathing.

Variations on the theme of mindfulness of breathing

Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness, discusses the practice of “rhythmic breathing” when exploring the interplay between music and mindfulness.  He also offers several breathing practices that involve breathing in-time to music beats such as 4/4 or ¾ time.  He suggests that you can develop this further by adopting what he calls the “four-bar sequence” – basically alternating inhalation and exhalation with holding your breath and doing each aspect for the equivalent of four bars. 

Richard encourages us to not only observe our breathing closely but notice its sonic qualities as well. He maintains that the process of conscious breathing is a meditative practice that builds mindfulness.  He argues that regular practice of breathing meditation linked to music can help us to develop “deep listening”, a skill that underpins quality relationships.

 Reflection

Our breath is with us in every moment and by paying attention to our breathing in the ways suggested, we can become more grounded in the present and less disturbed by ups and downs of life.  As we grow in self-awareness through breathing meditations, we can deepen our self-awareness and emotional regulation and  being more fully present to others through improved concentration and deep listening.

Mark extends the practice of mindful breathing and deep listening beyond our room to outside in nature and the wild.  He offers free daily nature meditations as well as Awake in the Wild Teacher Training.  He is the author of A Walk in the Wild: A Buddhist Walk through Nature – Meditations, Reflections and Practices.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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

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

A Meditation for Situational Anxiety

The meditation described here is one of many podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA.  The presenter is Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.  In the book, Diana explains the nature of natural awareness and how to develop it.

Diana is the main presenter of the MARC meditation podcasts that cover a wide range of topics designed to build self-awareness, increase self-regulation, and enhance overall well-being.  Diana describes the weekly meditation sessions as an oasis in the midst of our turbulent and challenging times.  In the meditation podcast described in this blog post Diana focuses on the topic, Are You Anxious?  The meditation is particularly powerful for people dealing with situational anxiety, e.g., awaiting a medical diagnosis or preparing for a job interview.  

The meditation may not work for some people who are experiencing a continuous state of non-specific anxiety.  The work of Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, may be useful here.  Also , people who have experienced childhood trauma may find the trauma-sensitive mindfulness approaches more in keeping with their present experience.

The mind-body connection in anxiety

When we experience the emotion of anxiety, we become conscious of the close mind-body connection involved.  Anxiety can be felt in the body in many ways, e.g., “butterflies in the stomach”, aches and pains in arms and/or legs, tightness in the chest or constriction or soreness of the throat.  Simultaneously, we will be experiencing negative thoughts such as imagining the worst possible scenario, questioning our ability to cope, recalling previous “failures” or envisaging a poor outcome.  The combination of thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations creates a vicious cycle with one reinforcing the other.

What compounds the difficulty of dealing with anxiety is that it has a bad name – it is considered a bad emotion.  Karla McLaren, author of Embracing Anxiety, suggests that anxiety is a necessary emotion within which lies the wisdom to identify and support constructive action to deal with our challenges, tasks, and expectations. She offers ways to access the “genius of anxiety” to channel the inherent energy towards constructive action (instead of repression or suppression of the feeling).

A guided meditation for situational anxiety

Diana’s podcast begins with a grounding exercise covering breath, bodily sensations, and sounds.  Grounding is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety because, as Johann points out, this emotion often arises from a sense of disconnection.   In the meditation, Diana strongly encourages us to feel the support of the chair, the earth, and our immediate environment – an approach designed to alleviate feeling unsupported in facing the challenges of life and to reinforce a sense of connectedness.

The next phase of the meditation focuses on our uncomfortable bodily sensations – getting in touch with, and reconnecting to, our bodies. It involves noticing how our body is responding to the emotion of anxiety and progressively releasing any tension, tightness, or constriction through a proactive body scan.

Moving beyond bodily sensations, Diana encourages us to address our negative thoughts by drawing on our inner wisdom to ask a series of challenging questions – what Karla calls “conscious questioning”.  This approach taps into previous achievements, challenges unfounded assumptions and catastrophe thinking and seeks to identify one or more constructive steps that can be taken to reduce anxiety and progress the task, project, or other challenging endeavour.

Diana rounds off her guided meditation on situational anxiety by encouraging us to engage in a loving kindness meditation – extending kindness to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are also experiencing anxiety.

Reflection

I recently used this guided meditation to help me deal with a challenging situation.  I found the body scan enlightening in the sense of unearthing and dealing with the uncomfortable bodily sensations associated with my anxiety.  The “conscious questioning” was also very constructive.  As we grow in mindfulness through guided meditations, whether face-to-face or via a podcast, we can increase our self-awareness (especially in relation to how our body and mind work in unison), develop our self-regulation by reducing reactivity and increase our sense of well-being and the associated ease.

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Image by Lars Eriksson from Pixabay

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

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

Developing an Anchor for Your Meditation

A meditation anchor serves to stabilise your thoughts when your mind starts to wander during a meditation exercise.  It is a way to secure your focus and restore your attention when you are invariably beset by distracting thoughts – a common occurrence for both experienced and inexperienced meditators.  An anchor is a personal choice and what works at one time may not work in another situation.  Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Alternatives to Breath Awareness, highlights the difficulties that people are experiencing with breath as an anchor while wild fires are raging in California.  People who suffer from respiratory problems, either chronically or intermittently, may also find that breathing is a difficult anchor to use during meditation.  Diana suggests bodily sensations or sounds as alternatives to breath awareness that can serve as an anchor during meditation.

Bodily sensations as an anchor during meditation

Often guided meditations begin with a focus on bodily sensations, e.g. feeling the firmness of the floor or ground beneath your feet.  This focus can be expanded to noticing the warmth or energy flow through your fingers when they are touching.   You might alternatively focus on the breeze on your face, the sensation of uprightness in your chair, the support beneath your body from the  ground or the sense of strength in your core.  Personal preference plays a big part in choosing a bodily sensation as an anchor during meditation.  It is important that it is emotionally neutral and does not evoke either strong emotions or racing thoughts.  The anchor is designed to bring stability when everything around you is constantly changing, including your thoughts and emotions.

Sound as an anchor during meditation

Diana frequently recommends sounds as an anchor for meditation during her MARC meditation podcasts.  The challenge here is to avoid evaluating the sound (e.g. in terms of whether it is good or annoying) or analyzing it (e.g. trying to identify the source of the sound).  Evaluation or analysis can take you away from your meditation focus and set in train a whole new line of thinking.   The sounds you choose can be anything that is relatively neutral.  Every room has its own room tone, and this can be an anchor.  If you tune into sounds, it can be useful to listen for the hardest to hear sound which intensifies your attention on listening.  When engaging in mindful walking in the outdoors, it can be very rewarding to use the sound of birds surrounding you as an anchor.

Reflection

I recall that when we had the bushfires in Queensland, I found it very difficult to use breath as a meditation anchor because of the amount of smoke and ash in the air.  I resorted to using the bodily sensation of fingers touching each other as an alternative.  This has served me well ever since as I use this anchor during waiting time to increase my awareness.

The main point is to choose something as an anchor that works for you (this may require some experimentation) and being able to adapt as your circumstances change.  What works at one time, may not work at another time.  As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation and developing our awareness muscle through effective meditation anchors, we will be better able to ride the waves of daily life and the challenges they present.

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Image by Oleg Mityukhin from Pixabay

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

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

Accessing the Power of Meditation and Loving Kindness

Barry Boyce, founding editor of Mindful.org, interviewed Sharon Salzberg, globally recognised meditation teacher, about the impact of meditation and loving kindness (about which Sharon is a world-renowned exponent).  In the interview, The Power of Loving-Kindness, Sharon explained how she had studied Eastern philosophy and learned about meditation by travelling to India, not the local meditation centre like you do today.  She was surprised that much of the Indian meditation practice that she learned focused on the breath, not the more esoteric approaches she had learned about.

Focusing on the breath

Sharon was at first taken aback by the simplicity of the breath focus.  However, she soon realised that while the idea is simple, the execution is difficult because it involves having to deal with racing thoughts that distracted her from her focus on her breath.   She found how hard it was to pay attention to her breath when “thoughts came tumbling down like a waterfall”.

At challenging times, when anxiety is high, our mind races away from our focus with some speed and intensity.  Bringing attention back to our breathing focus, is difficult to do but builds our “attention muscle”.  It enhances our power of concentration and our capacity to be with what is, whether it is the experience of well-being or the pain and suffering of challenging emotions.  Pausing to focus on our breath develops clarity and our capacity to lead with conviction.

The role of loving-kindness

There is a tendency is to give up in the face of the difficulty of focusing on our breath.  However, persistence really pays and creates the power to access equanimity, ease and creativity.  Sometimes, we are tempted to beat up on ourselves by saying, “We are not good at meditation and never will be?”; “It’s such a simple thing, why can’t I do it?”  “Other people seem to manage, why can’t I?”

This is where loving kindness has a role.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his definition of mindfulness, exhorts us to practise paying purposeful attention “non-judgmentally”.  It is the negative self-evaluation that creates the greatest barrier to meditation, not the fact that we have lots of distracting thoughts.  Thoughts are natural and will vary in content and frequency over time, reflecting what is going on in our life at that time.  Jon suggests that we treat thoughts as if they are bubbles floating to the surface in boiling water.

Sharon maintains that “kindness towards ourselves” is essential if we are going to be able to persist with meditation.  She argues that paying attention and kindness are inseparable – without self-compassion, you cannot sustain your attention.   The power of meditation lies not only in the increasing capacity to concentrate but also in the ability to develop robust self-esteem through loving-kindness.   Another dimension of this power is the ability to rest in our breath and bodily sensations in troubling times and times of turbulence in our life. Sharon explores fully the role of loving-kindness in her recent book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

The power of connection

Through meditation and loving-kindness, we come to realise our connectedness to everyone and our connection with nature.  This is foundational to our ability to show compassion towards others.  If we can accept ourselves fully – with our flaws, hurtful behaviour and our complex emotions – we are better able to extend compassion and forgiveness to others and accept that they are only human too.

Through our sense of connection, we can tap into the “collective energy” that surrounds us, pursue our life purpose and make a real difference in the world.  Meditation becomes a power source, a way of accessing the power within and without – it becomes the conduit for our energy system.

Reflection

Meditation has a calming yet powerful effect.  When we are rattled or frazzled, our power of concentration is diminished, our thoughts become dispersed and our energy dissipated.   Paying attention to our breath with loving-kindness enables us to access our power source and to bring focused energy to our endeavours, whatever they may be.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, particularly through loving-kindness meditation, we can enhance our sense of connection to everybody and every living thing, build resilient self-esteem and draw on the power of focus.

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Image by Alexander Droeger from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding the Process of Emotions

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

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

The process of emotions

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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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.