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.

Understanding Death and the Process of Dying

Rheanna Hoffmann recently interviewed Frank Ostaseski on healing grief through compassion and love.  Frank founded the Metta Institute whose mission is to provide innovative educational approaches to developing skills in “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.  Rheanna herself is the founder of The Whole Practitioner, dedicated to helping nurses move beyond frustration and burnout to “rediscover, health, balance and their core values”.

Frank and many other writers on the process of dying maintain that it is not just a medical event but is much broader and more holistic than this form of the mechanical model.  Increasingly, research is confirming too that consciousness is more than our physical brains.  Frank argues that the unwillingness in our culture to talk about death and the dying process is preventing us from learning the lessons that the dying can teach us and our children.  He contends that if we learn about the dying process and face the reality of our inevitable death, we can better appreciate the “preciousness of life” and live our lives more fully and in alignment with our values and purpose.

The process of dying

Frank describes dying as a process of “stripping away”.  It’s as if everything that is associated with our “ego” – our sense of self – is peeled away.  Undoubtedly, our mental and physical capacities decline, and this begins with the aging process.  But the stripping away is much more than that – it is losing attachment to everything including our spouse or partner, our home, our roles, our possessions, and the animals in our life.  Frank also talks about dying as a “sacred process of transformation” through which we see things in a new light, have a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and the value and true purpose of our own life – in other words “an awakening”, no longer limited by our concept of a “small separate self”.

Peter Fenwick, when talking about What Really Happens When We Die, suggests that the more we hold on to our ego needs and refuse to let go, the more difficult is the dying process.  Living our life in a selfless way – not totally self-centred — makes the process of dying easier because we are not absorbed in holding on to our attachments.  Being “other-centred” in the pre-transition phase of our life makes dying easier and enables the final transformation that Peter describes as entering a “spiritual domain” where you lose your identity as a separate self and become identified with the total cosmos – the universal whole.

Peter discusses the change in our level of consciousness in the light of research into Near Death Experience (NDE).  He maintains that consciousness research focused around NDE experiences confirm a “widening of consciousness” that manifests in:

  • Losing the self-narrative – the self-talk that we employ to boost or deflate our egos
  • Being just in the moment – not absorbed in the past or anxious about the future
  • Experiencing “unbelievable” happiness
  • Tending to be transcendent – losing a sense of duality (our self and others) and becoming merged with the cosmos.

Peter has co-authored The Art of Dying with Elizabeth Fenwick which provides personal accounts from those who have been dying and people (healthcare professionals, carers and family) who have been with them and supported them in the process of dying.   The accounts discussed, as well as other research into NDE experiences, confirm that consciousness is much more than our physical brains.  Monica Renz, author of Dying: A Transition, provides a process-oriented approach to end-of-life patient care that incorporates confirming the dignity of the patient, understanding the transition process of dying and being able to sensitively engage in the symbolic journey described by dying patients.  Her observations and detailed accounts are based on attending 1,000 cancer patients during the process of dying.  Monica describes the dying process as both an archetypal and a spiritual process and contends that, in the process of transition, patients move through fear into a “space of peace, acceptance, dignity and tranquillity characterised by connectedness and even luminosity”.

Reflection

Our cultural blinkers blind us to the reality of the dying process and the nature of our own inevitable death.  As we become more aware of the dying process through our own research and study, we can learn to appreciate how precarious our life is and how precious is the process of both living and dying.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death and reflecting on its implications for how we live our life, we can progressively come into more alignment with our life force, our values and our life purpose.

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Image by Hans Braxmeier 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.

How to Be Open to Change

Diana Winston recently provided a guided meditation on Opening to Change as part of the weekly meditation podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.  Diana pointed out that change has always been a part of our life – both internally and externally.  We have constantly experienced change in the form of changes to our bodily sensations, our thoughts, emotions and body form.  We have experienced constant change in our environment (local and global) – our economic, political, social, financial, legal and climatic environment.  We can just think of the ever-changing nature of social media or the weather to remind us of the numerous changes that we experience daily.

Disruptive change brought on by the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus has created a disruptive change that is unprecedented in its magnitude and impacts.  We are finding that every dimension of our lives has been disrupted.  How we work and where we work has changed and for some people this means a loss of job and income.  Our financial situation is changing constantly as the new reality sets in, with businesses closing or going into lockdown, the share market fluctuating erratically, and customers prevented from visiting stores, cafes and restaurants.

Local, interstate and international travel has been severely constricted.  There have been significant restrictions on our daily lives – our movement, hygiene practices and access to resources have been mandated by Government (employing emergency powers).  Our interactions are changing as we have to adopt social distancing and social isolation – so people avoid rather than connect, people even cross the road to create distance as we approach them.

There are new limitations on who we can meet with, and the nature, duration and location of our meetings.  We are often forced to connect online, instead of face-to-face and to experience the exhaustion of this new mode of contact when adopted on a constant basis.  Everything seems to be turned upside down, even our perception of what day it is.  Bernard Salt, social commentator and demographer, coined the term “Lockdown Befuddlement Syndrome (LBS)” to describe our inability to remember what day it is  – a condition he attributes to the “loss of reference points” which served to fix the time of day and the day of the week for us (Weekend Australian Magazine, 16-17 May 2020, p. 28).

It is natural then for us to experience stress and resistance when we encounter total disruption and uncertainty.  It is also natural for us to experience the very real fear of viral contamination when going to the shops, being in enclosed public transport or lifts or just walking down the street. 

Previously, we have discussed various issues that impact our openness to change – our immunity to change, the need for emotional agility and the different survival strategies that individuals adopt.  Diana offers a guided meditation to help us to be more open to change whatever our habituated response is.  She suggests that, through mindfulness practice, we can turn the current “breakdown” in our life to the potential of a “breakthrough”. 

Guided meditation on openness to change

There are several steps in the guided meditation offered by Diana:

  • Physical grounding – sitting, lying or standing comfortably with eyes closed or downwardly focused.
  • Body scan – feeling your feet on the floor or ground, breathing into points of stiffness or pain, opening to your bodily sensations as they are at the moment.   Diana also suggests some form of movement to loosen your muscles, e.g. move your neck from side to side, stretch your arms and legs.
  • Emotional scan – getting in touch with your feelings at the moment and naming your feelings, without self-censure or self-evaluation (everyone experiences a range of emotions when faced with extreme uncertainty and threats to their sense of security).  It also involves confronting the experience of boredom and how it negatively impacts your life.
  • Mind scan – being open to your thoughts and what occupies your mind, exploring your preoccupation with the lost opportunities of the past and/or the uncertainty of the future.
  • Mindful breathing – sense your breathing (the in-breath, out-breath and the gap between), adopting deep breathing to tap into your life force.
  • Tune into sounds – open your awareness to sounds in the room and externally, without interpretation or emotional response.
  • Decide on an anchor – what will help you return to your focus when your mind wanders and you lose focus?  Your anchor could be a specific form of breathing, a bodily sensation, attention to sounds or any other signal to return your attention back to your desired focus.
  • Exploring your approach to present changes in your life – once you are in touch with how you are holistically experiencing your current reality, you can ask yourself a series of questions:
    • What aspects of your changed life are you adapting to well?
    • What positive responses have you employed, how have your enriched your daily routine?
    • What has slipped from your earlier resolve and practice, have you lost the discipline of a daily routine?
    • How could you improve your responses to your changed life and environment?
    • Are your expectations realistic, given your present environment?
    • What single positive behavioural change will you adopt?

Reflection

There are numerous examples, locally and globally, of individuals, communities and businesses adapting in a positive way to the experience of our current, constrained existence.  Parents are spending more time with their children; people working from home are valuing their home environment and enjoying increased productivity; businesses are adapting to a take-away or online environment; consultants, trainers and teachers are successfully converting to an online-teaching environment; people are learning new skills, including how to make bread; many people are exercising more and/or spending more time in nature and the open air.

Individuals and communities are working together to offer free nutritious meals to frontline health workers; businesses are adapting manufacturing processes to produce sanitisers, ventilators and protective gear; and musicians and artists are providing free shows online to brighten people’s lives and raise funds to fight the Coronavirus.   Everywhere you look, you can see examples of the resilience and generosity of the human spirit.

Diana askes us, “How can we channel what we have learned [in this crisis] to create a new existence?”  She maintains that as we grow in mindfulness we can move beyond our self-limitations and negative self-talk to access our inner strength, resilience and creativity.  We can move beyond our self-absorption to a sense of gratitude, self-compassion and compassion towards others.

Bernard Salt asks the Australian community:

What learnings, skills, adaptations, re­imagined values can we, should we, take forward in the recovery process to build an even better Australia in the months and the years ahead?  (The Australian, Monday 18 May 2020)

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Image by Jess Foami 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 Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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Image by ShonEjai 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.

Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

Johann Hari, in his  book Lost Connections, discusses various ways to achieve reconnection to other people, to meaningful work and to meaningful values.  In looking at ways to reconnect with others he maintains that the challenge is to overcome self-addiction (what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “myself as the center of the universe”), and transition to valuing the success of others (what Johann calls “sympathetic joy”).  To illustrate this transition, he tells the story of his friend Rachel who was consumed by envy – a divisive emotion that is socially constructed.

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

Rachel was able to describe how she experienced disappointment, sadness and depression when others succeeded at the expense of her own self-evaluation.  She explained that she had become driven by society’s values that encouraged comparison, competition and materialistic values – a society that was based on the assumption that if others achieved power or success there was less to go around for herself (a “zero-sum” perspective).

She lacked happiness and joy in her life because she always came up lacking when comparing herself with others – whether the basis of comparison was financial or professional success, the quality of her home or car or her level of visibility/perceived credentials.  This led increasingly to disconnection from others, in part because she could not express appreciation for their achievements and distanced herself to reduce her envy.

In Johann’s book, Rachel describes how she was able to turn from envy to valuing the success of others – how she was able to progressively experience and express “sympathetic joy”.

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

Rachel explains how she turned to loving-kindness meditation as a pathway to overcome the pressure of society’s expectations and her socially constructed envy.  Overcoming addiction to self was a slow journey, but as she began to express positive emotions towards others when they “succeeded”, she was able to release the stranglehold of society’s expectations embed in her sense of self.

There are various forms of loving-kindness meditation and the form Rachel described entailed the following steps:

  • You picture yourself being successful in some arena of activity and allow the resultant joy to flow through you – experiencing it holistically in mind, body and emotion
  • You then visualise someone you love succeeding in some endeavour, and again open yourself fully to the resultant joy
  • You progressively focus on success and joy in relation to someone you don’t know well or are not close to, then someone you dislike and lastly someone for whom you have a strong dislike.

This loving-kindness meditation – expressing happiness for the success of others – eventually erodes envy and replaces it with appreciation, valuing others and experiencing real joy (that is no longer solely dependent on your own success but also embraces the success of others).

Reflection

We can move from envy to sympathetic joy as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation and reflection.  As the neuroscientists continually reminds us, “we become what we focus on” – if we focus on valuing the success of others (in whatever arena) we will experience joy, if we continue to envy the success of others, we will become consumed by envy and resentment and become disconnected from others.  Sympathetic joy is a pathway to personal happiness, whereas envy leads to sadness, depression and despair because our self-evaluation is based on distorted comparison with others.

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Image by Eric Michelat 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.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin 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 Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with 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.

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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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.

Making Meaning for Well-Being

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four years in German concentration camps, wrote a landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book he argues that our most fundamental drive is a search for meaning rather than a search for pleasure. He demonstrated in his life in the concentration camp and through his research, that while suffering is an integral part of life, we can find meaning in it. Subsequent research has confirmed that searching for meaning and pursuing meaningful actions develops personal well-being.

Joaquín García-Alandete, writing in The European Journal of Counselling Psychology (2015), reported the results of his research that demonstrated that the relationship between meaning in life and psychological well-being was significant. Michael Steger and colleagues found in their research that the search for meaning is present in all stages of life and that realising meaning in life contributed to well-being. Conversely, the absence of meaning in the latter stages of life contributed to a reduced sense of well-being.

Dr. Paul Wong maintains that meaning contributes to well-being by enhancing positive feelings, reducing depression and building hope and resilience in the face of adverse and stressful circumstances. Michael Steger and Joo Yeon Shin argue that happiness and meaning become more imperative in our technological age characterised by an anxiety epidemic, choice overload, constant demand for adaption and an ever-increasing pace of life.

Making meaning- aligning our actions with what is meaningful for us

The search for meaning alone does not guarantee well-being. Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer found in her research that the key to well-being was prioritizing meaning within our lives. This ultimately means doing things that align with our purpose in life and that give meaning to our life.

Achieving insight into our life’s purpose and realising alignment through our actions is a lifetime pursuit that is aided by mindfulness. Pninit suggests that as we develop self-awareness, we can reflect on our action choices and test them for alignment with our values and their impact on our well-being … and make appropriate adjustments.

Pninit argues that our simple everyday actions can be the pathway to well-being because they enable us to cultivate meaning in our lives on a daily basis. We can effectively build meaning into our lives by giving priority to aligning our choices with our values and life purpose. Just the simple, conscious act of building a collage of meaningful photos can reinforce what matters to us, build a renewed sense of purpose and increase our energy for prioritizing meaning in our lives.

Dr. Paul Wong maintains that it is not enough to believe our life is meaningful and then indulge in a lifestyle that does not contribute value to society in a way that is unique to ourselves, to our core knowledge and skills. A life that consists solely in the individual pursuit of pleasure and or power is wasteful and is devoid of meaning – a reality that is born out daily in the lives of celebrities in the fields of sport, cinema and music.

As we grow in mindfulness through a focus on our purpose and what is meaningful in our life, we can achieve a sense of well-being that assists us to live more fully and to deal with the ups and downs of life. Mindfulness meditation and reflection enable us to assess the alignment between what we value and what we do – to determine how well we are prioritizing meaning in our life. These mindful activities help us to deepen our sense of meaning – and consequent well-being – through our everyday activities.

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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.

Gratitude – a Reflection

In my last post I wrote about simple gratitude exercises.  There was one in particular that resonated with me – reflecting on your day.  As a result, I reflected on a specific event that occurred the day before.  It was a cafe meeting I had with two of my colleagues.  Reflecting on this event brought home to me how much I take for granted in my life.  I will share my reflections about my gratitude for this interaction in the following post.

Gratitude for colleague 1 – occasional colleague

I last worked with this colleague about six months ago.  Despite this elapsed time, I found we virtually took up the conversation “where we left off”.  I often marvel at how this occurs – when you are with real friends, you seem to be able to resume “where you left off” even after 6 months, a year or even many years – it’s almost as if you communicate in the ether over time, even when you are going your separate ways.

Underlying this ease of conversation, is a common value system and belief about the inherent goodness of people.  In our case, it also relates to an approach to organisational consulting which sets a lot of value on respecting people and seeking to create positive, productive and mentally healthy organisations.  It is a rich source of support when you have a colleague, however occasional, that you can relate to so easily and share a common paradigm about people and organisations.  I am very grateful for this rich relationship, developed more than three years ago, which has provided me with such professional support.

Gratitude for colleague 2 – weekly collaborator

Over more than a decade now, I have worked weekly with a colleague with whom I collaborate on manager/executive development and organisational reviews and development.  While we may not be working specifically with a manager or organisation all the time, we are regularly sharing resources, planning workshops or interventions, reflecting on our activities and following up with clients.

We have in common a shared set of values which among other things encompasses working continuously to develop mentally healthy organisations.  We do this through the Confident People Management Program (CPM), a longitudinal, action learning program we conduct with managers and executives in Government agencies throughout the State.  In all, we have worked with over 2,000 managers in the past decade or so.

Additionally, we have undertaken organisational interventions at the request of clients who want to increase leadership effectiveness, undertake collaborative strategic planning, develop a positive and productive culture, heal divisions or act on aspects of organisational life identified by managers and/or staff as unsatisfactory.

My colleague has the contacts, the persistence and energy to generate this work – and I regularly express appreciation for this collaborative work and the rich experience and learning that this provides (not to mention the revenue involved also).

I appreciate her courageous commitment to her values and willingness to challenge others when their words and actions do not align with their stated values.  Associated with this is the readiness to question her own words and actions through ongoing reflection.   This personal commitment to continuous improvement in herself and others is foundational to the success we experience in engaging managers and organisations.  It is underpinned by her absolute commitment to meet the needs of our clients, whether they are individuals, groups or organisations as a whole.

There is also an underlying courage and willingness to “have a go” and try something different which is both refreshing and encouraging and has taken us into consulting realms and activities that I thought would not eventuate.  This is the inherent developmental aspect of our professional relationship, as we stretch our boundaries to meet the needs of our clients – managers and organisations.

I appreciate too that my colleague does not have “ego” investment in any of the processes we plan for our manager development or organisational intervention activities.  This makes it so much easier to plan, explore alternative options, experiment and change course mid-action.   It also facilitates the ability for collaborative reflection on action as well as in-action.

I am grateful that our relationship has been built on complementary skills – with my colleague contributing a unique depth of understanding of our public sector clients and their history as well as endless contacts.  My contribution focuses on process design and our collaboration has developed my process design skills and provided the support/opportunity to explore new processes and embed different processes into our manager development activities and organisational interventions.  We also share a common understanding of group and organisational dynamics and a commitment to action learning and the values that underpin this approach to manager and organisational development.

Underlying all this however, is a common set of values around respecting and valuing people and seeking to facilitate the development of mentally healthy organisations where executives, managers and staff can develop themselves and their organisations.  We often describe our work as “enabling organisational participants/groups to have the conversations they should be having”- whether that is managing upwards, sharing values, planning together, resolving conflicts or building each other’s capacity and capability.

I have worked with many colleagues over more than forty years of educating and consulting, and it is rare indeed to have a colleague who brings so much to a professional relationship, who values the relationship above self-interest and is willing to collaborate in the very real sense of the word.  My reflection on this cafe meeting brought home to me how much I value this ongoing professional relationship and all that it has enabled me to undertake and achieve.   For this, I am very grateful, but I realise how much of this richness I take for granted.  Reflecting on various professional experiences with my colleague is a catalyst for this expression of gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness, we learn to take less for granted and grow in appreciation for the many people and things that enrich our lives.  Reflection really aids the development of this sense of gratitude.  Through reflection we come to see what others have contributed to our wellness, growth, mental health, sense of accomplishment and happiness.   In relationships we can become who we are capable of being.  Ongoing reflection helps relationships, professional and otherwise, to develop and grow richer.  There is so much about reflection that underpins gratitude.  Being mindful helps us to reflect, just as reflection contributes to our development of mindfulness and the associated internal and external awareness.

 

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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.