Ways to Manage Ourself During Difficult Times

The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers weekly guided meditation podcasts on a wide range of topics and issues.  In one of the recent meditation podcasts Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC focused on “Practices in Difficult Times” – providing several mindfulness practices designed to help us achieve calmness, manage our challenging emotions and express compassion to ourselves and to others who are suffering.

Diana highlighted the fact that challenging events such as the mass shootings in America and the war in Ukraine can generate “emotional inflammation” in us – we can feel strong emotions of anger, grief, rage or sadness.  We might feel overwhelmed by others’ inconceivable pain and loss and our own emotional response.  We might be confused and continually ask ourselves, “Why the children?”, “Why Ukraine?” or “When will this emotional and physical devastation stop?”

Diana draws on mindfulness practices to help us deal with these challenging times and the emotions they elicit in us.  She reminds us that mindfulness involves placing our attention fully on the present moment while being open and curious and accepting what is in our present internal and external reality. 

Three mindfulness practices for difficult times

The three mindfulness practices offered by Diana are described, in turn, in the following discussion:

  1. Calming Practices: Here we are encouraged to tap into the body’s own capacity to generate calm and ease.  The primary aim is to achieve groundedness in a way that is conducive to our present needs.  We could start by taking a couple of deep breaths and releasing them slowly to let go of the tension within us.  There is the option to find a place of ease in our body and focus in on it, e.g., our arms beside our body, our relaxed legs or our fingers joined and pulsating with energy.  Diana particularly stressed the power of “feeling the support of the earth” through our feet on the floor or the ground.  Our breath with its natural rhythm can provide a basis for experiencing calm and ease (unless, of course, focusing on our breath acts as a trauma stimulus).  If attention to our breath is calming, there are many ways to access a relaxed state through mindful breathing  practices.  We could adopt “micro-practices” such as the  4-7-8 breathing practice often used in yoga, the breathing in time practices (using our breath as a musical instrument) or we could pay attention to the internal physical sensations of our breathing – e.g., the rising and falling of our abdomen or the feeling of air moving in and out of our nose.  Diana suggests another alternative is to pay full attention to the sounds in the room or what is being generated externally (especially if we are in a natural setting with the sounds of birds, waves, or wind).  Sound can also be used as a calming mindfulness practice as we listen to and sing mantra meditations provided by people like Lulu & Mischka (such as their Rainbow Light song as part of their peaceful Horizon album).
  2. Holding strong emotions: Normally, people tend to suppress challenging emotions, deny them, or deflect their attention from them by numbing themselves with some form of addictive behaviour such as drinking excessive alcohol, overeating, taking illegal drugs or over-spending while shopping compulsively.  Mindfulness experts and psychologists remind us that we need to face up to our emotions or they will cause disruptions in our lives through some form of mental and/or physical illness.  Diana encourages us in this guided meditation to pay attention to our challenging emotions and observe how they are manifesting in our body, e.g. tightness in the chest, pain in the arms or neck, headaches, overall stiffness or fibromyalgia (non-specific whole-body pain).  Holding on to these strong emotions enables us to deal with them directly and use the healing power of our mind and body to dissipate them.  If we experience overwhelm while confronting our strong emotions, we can return to our meditation anchor which could be our breath, external sounds, bodily sensations or music.
  3. Compassion practice: Diana explains that compassion practice in this context involves ourselves as well as others who may be experiencing suffering and loss.  She encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion as we struggle to deal with our challenging emotions and our misguided attempts to ignore them or numb them.  She suggests, then, that we extend loving kindness to others in the world who are experiencing pain, devastation, grief and anger.  Diana offers  a possible expression of compassion for others in the form of a statement of desire, “May you be freed from pain and suffering and find contentment and ease”.

Reflection

We have a deep well of ease in our bodies that we can access at any time, if only we can let go of our damaging thoughts.  As we grow in mindfulness through calming practices, facing our challenging emotions and practising compassion towards ourselves and others, we can gain the insight, courage and capacity to manage ourselves during difficult times.  Mindfulness enables us to achieve emotional regulation, self-awareness and the creative drive to be the best we can be.  Challenging emotions, left unchecked or ignored, can undermine our endeavours at home or at work.

Over time we can develop a regular mindfulness practice that suits our make-up and that we can undertake on a daily basis (e.g., Tai Chi, mantra meditations, chanting or yoga).  This core mindfulness practice can be supplemented by micro-practices that we engage in throughout the day (e.g., when washing our hands, during waiting times, or when boiling the jug).  The compound effect of these core and micro-practices is a calm state of mind, enhanced patience and conscious presence.

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Image by ChiemSeherin 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.

Under the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh

In a prelude to a guided meditation podcast, Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Diana Winston spoke with reverence about the life of Thich Nhat Hanh and his global influence.  Nhat Hanh, who died aged ninety-five in Vietnam on January 22 2022, was a Zen Master, peace activist, poet and author of over 100 books focused mainly on mindfulness and peace.  He established multiple Buddhist communities around the world and is considered the “Father of Western mindfulness”.  He exerted a global influence throughout his teaching life conducting numerous retreats and speaking with influencers such as the World Bank, Google and the U.S. Congress.

During the Vietnam war Nhat Hanh introduced the concept of “Engaged Buddhism” and led Buddhist monks in actions designed to help people of Vietnam who were suffering from the drastic effects of the extended conflict and regular bombing.  He argued that mindfulness increases our capacity to “see” but that this insight needs to be translated into compassionate action.   Nhat Hanh established the Plum Village in France, the largest Buddhist community in the world and an international practice center for followers of his mindfulness approach.  The influence of Thich Nhat Hanh is so pervasive that it is not possible to do its credit in this short blog post.  However, his teachings and meditations are readily accessible via Plum Village videos on YouTube and his full life history on the Plum Village website.

Guided meditation

Diana Winston, at the outset of her podcast meditation, acknowledged the profound influence that Nhat Hanh had over her mindfulness practice and that of numerous other mindfulness teachers and practitioners around the world.  She stressed Nhat Hanh’s influence over the practice of bringing mindfulness into everyday life and emphasised the benefits of mindfulness meditation in terms of stress reduction, overcoming anxiety and depression, managing pain, improving mood and developing a positive mindset and emotions.

After suggesting a comfortable, focused posture, Diana begins the meditation with the encouragement to take a couple of deep breaths, recalling the words of Nhat Hanh “Breathing in, I calm the breath; breathing out, I smile”.  She reminds us to identify any points of tension in our body and to soften those points to release the tension.

Next Diana asks us to focus on our breath – the process of breathing, whether the awareness is through the movement of air through our nose or the undulations of our chest or abdomen.  This is a passive observation, not trying to control the breath, but following it as it happens naturally in our body. 

She then suggests that we focus on the sounds that surround us – again passively, allowing the sounds to reach us without attempting interpretation or evaluation (in terms of pleasant or unpleasant).  

Diana maintains that it is only natural for thoughts and feelings to intrude and distract us from our chosen focus.  However, she recommends that we use our breath or sounds as our anchor to bring us back to our focus.  An alternative is to focus on bodily sensations such as those of our feet on the ground or our fingers touching each other causing tingling, warmth or a sensation of flow.  I like to use fingers touching as my anchor and I find that when I am waiting for something (e.g. a traffic light) I can touch my fingers and immediately drop into a breath consciousness that is calming.  

Diana observes that there are times when strong feelings will emerge, depending on what is going on in our lives at the time.  She suggests that we face these feelings and allow them to manifest without staying absorbed in them.  I noted that at one point in the meditation, I experienced a profound sense of sadness precipitated by the distressing events in Ukraine. I was able to stay with the sadness for a time and then restore the focus on my anchor, the sensations in my joined fingers.   The period of ten minutes silence at the end of the meditation podcast enabled me to deepen my focus.

Reflection

In her meditation podcast, Diana recalls Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments about death and dying.  In his video podcast on the topic, Where do we go when we die?, Nhat Hanh reminds us that cells in our body are dying all the time and new cells are being born – so, death and birth are part of every moment of our life.  He maintains that the disintegration of our body at death does not mean we cease to exist.  In his view, our words and actions continue to influence others – so, after we die, we continue in all the people who have come under our influence (or will come under our influence in the future).  He indicated that when he died he would continue in the lives of many thousands of people through the books he has written, the videos he has created and the podcasts that live on after him.

Sounds True provides a video of Nhat Hanh, the artist, as he engages in calligraphy as a form of mindfulness, using the in-breath and out-breath.  In one calligraphy, he likens the continuation of our lives in different forms to a cloud that never dies.

Diana states that the global mindfulness movement represents in many ways the continuation of the life of Nhat Hanh.  She asks us, “How are you going to enable the continuation of Nhat Hanh’s life in your own life?”. As we grow in mindfulness, we are continuing the life and tradition of Nhat Hanh and gaining access to the benefits of mindfulness including calmness, emotion regulation, insight, resilience and the courage to take compassionate action.

Thich Nhat Hahn made a hugely significant contribution to the global mindfulness movement and world peace (he was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize).  Nhat Hanh left us a huge store of resources to enable us to plumb the depths of his teachings and his indomitable spirit, and to continue his life’s work to create a “beloved community”.  In all his life, throughout  the challenges of suffering, grief and disappointment, he “practised a lot of breathing, coming back to himself”.  Mindful breathing provided his grounding during all phases of his life, especially in the face of violence against the Vietnamese people, his followers and social workers.

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Image by Karl Egger 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.

Playing Canasta: An Analogy for Mindfulness

I was recently playing Canasta with my wife during a trip to Stradbroke Island to attend the Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival (SCMF).  It occurred to me that playing Canasta was an analogy for mindfulness – there were significant aspects of playing Canasta well that reminded me of being mindful.  I don’t want to trivialise mindfulness or overextend the analogy, but there are times when the ordinary seems to assume extraordinary dimensions.  Rachel Joyce captures this phenomenon in her book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – where a walking trip from the south of England to the north becomes a journey into Harold’s “inner landscape”.  It seems to me that to play Canasta well you have to pay attention in the moment and, above all, “play the best game you can with the cards you’re dealt”.

Paying Attention

Paying attention on purpose is fundamental to the development of mindfulness.  It builds concentration, self-awareness, awareness of the other and creative solutions to challenging problems.  In Canasta, you need to pay attention to what is happening in the game, notice the micro-behaviour of the other player(s), observe the choices they make about “taking up” or “putting down”, notice what cards they ignore and what they table.  You also have to be aware of what is going on in your own hand, test out your own assumptions and hypotheses about the other player’s strategy, correct any mistakes you make and “go with the flow” of the game.

Play with the cards you are dealt

According to the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), acceptance is integral to mindfulness – “accepting what is”.  Diana Winston, mindfulness educator with MARC, reminds us that this acceptance entails self-acceptance, breaking the complaining cycle, overcoming disappointments, being in touch with our feelings and keeping things in perspective.

In Canasta, there is no point in complaining about the cards you have been dealt or wishing that your mix of cards were better (e.g., more wild cards and jokers or multiple cards of the same number/rank).  You have to play with the cards you’re dealt and develop strategies to make the most of those cards and the cards you are offered/acquire as the game progresses.  You have to continue to pay attention as the game unfolds because you will begin to see opportunities that were not available or obvious at the start of the game.  And so it is with mindful living.

Reflection

There are many things in life that can be enriched by being mindful – whether it is being in nature, playing tennis, driving your car, listening to music, developing inclusive leadership or just waiting for something to happen.  For example, “killing time” while waiting can become an opportunity to tune your awareness, playing tennis and making mistakes can develop your self-awareness, self-regulation and resilience when played mindfully (and accepting what is!).

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enrich every aspect of our life because mindfulness is a portable state – it is not just grounded in a meditative practice or stance. It shapes who you are and how you respond to life and its many challenges.  It impacts what you see and how you perceive it.  It helps you to develop deep listening in relationships.  Mindfulness can go with you wherever you go but it requires a concerted effort, a commitment to practice and activities that enable you to transition from meditation to living life fully and with purpose.

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Image by jacqueline macou 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.

The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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Image by wei zhu 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.

Mindfulness and Self-Sabotage through Social Media

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has developed the GEM pathway to happiness which entails three core elements – gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness.   In his book, The Resilience Project, he describes the origins of his approach, the impact of practising GEM and its effectiveness in helping people to move from depression about the past or anxiety about the future.  He has found that his approach has been effective for school children, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople in small and large organisations.  At the heart of his approach, is the tenet that happiness lies in “being” and appreciating what we have, not in “having” and resenting what we do not have.  Hugh gives concrete examples of where practising the simple process of a gratitude journal has enabled people to overcome suicidal thoughts and find happiness in their life, their relationships, their business accomplishments and/or their sporting endeavours.

Developing mindfulness practices

Hugh described how his school children in India looked forward to their daily 30-minute meditation each morning at school.  In Australia, he had his students take a mindful walk around an oval before school started and observe and record “five things they heard, saw and felt” on their walks each day.  He basically encouraged them to pay attention to their senses so that they could live their day more fully, with increased awareness.  Hugh highlighted the studies that demonstrate the positive impact of mindfulness practices (e.g., meditation, body scan, mindful breathing) on adolescent stress, depression, and anxiety.  These impacts have explained the global development of mindfulness in schools, including the MindUP Program developed by Goldie Hawn and her foundation.

I have written earlier about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for adults, including the development of wisdom, calmness, clarity, and self-awareness.  Mindfulness practices can also help to “mind  your brain”, an otherwise neglected resource.  The challenge is to find a way to practise mindfulness daily in whatever form suits us personally.  Regularity, repetition, and practice build capability, provide constant positive reinforcement, and develop “unconscious competence”.  Hugh demonstrated through his real-life stories how we become what we focus on – the simple act of a daily gratitude journal leads to gratitude-in-the moment; practising loving-kindness meditation develops kindness and compassionate action; and regular reflection-on-action enables the capacity for reflection-in-action.

Self-sabotage in the pursuit of mindfulness

Despite our best intentions in practising mindfulness, we can easily sabotage our own efforts.  Self-sabotage can take many forms, including obsession with the news, overuse of our mobile phones or addiction to social media.  We can grab for our phones when we are waiting for something or someone, instead of using the opportunity to develop awareness. 

Hugh warns about the negative impacts of social media and its harmful effects on our minds.  He explains how social media giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter use “persuasive technologies” to distract us and capture our attention – because “eyes-on-a-page” readily translates to revenue dollars through advertising.  Your likes and dislikes are tracked continuously so that you can be fed advertisements for what you most likely desire and are willing to buy.  The benefits of any particular product or service are embellished – you do not buy a car, you buy “envy”, “status”, “luxury” or “visibility”.  

Hugh points out that social media and constant, easy access via mobile phones have become integral to the “attention economy” that feeds off our tendency for distractedness – distraction from ourselves, our pressures. and relationships.  Disruptive marketing through “pop-ups” and “behavioural retargeting” are designed to pull your attention away to what social media advertisers want you to pay attention to.  By engaging endlessly in consuming social media, we are self-sabotaging our mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention on purpose in the present moment with wonder and awe and an openness to what is real and meaningful in our life.

Hugh recommends several strategies to reclaim “what the attention economy has taken from you”:

  • Delete Facebook from your phones
  • Turn off notifications on your phones
  • Rearrange your home screen to display what you want to focus on and delete what you are unhealthily addicted to
  • Leave home without your phone (at least occasionally when it is not necessary to have it with you).

Our level of resistance to any or all of these recommendations reflects our level of capture by the psychological manipulation of the attention economy.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can access a wide array of benefits that enable us to live more  happily and aware.  However, if we obsess over the news or social media and become captured by our mobile phones, we will sabotage our efforts to mind our brains, build emotional resilience and achieve tranquility and ease.

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Image by Thomas Ulrich 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 Silence

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

Noise pollution in our lives

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

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

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

Practices to access the power of silence

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

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

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness Practices to Develop Mental Health and Wellbeing

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to restore balance to our mental and emotional state.  These structured approaches can be readily reinforced by mindfulness practices that are more flexible and adaptable to our personal circumstances and preferences. 

Through mindfulness practices embedded in our daily life and routine, we can progressively achieve the situation where mindfulness is not just something we do, but the way we are in the world.  This enables us to show up in a mindful and compassionate way and have a positive influence on the people we interact with in our daily life.

Mindfulness practices that you can use to develop mental health and wellbeing

There are a wide range of mindfulness practices described in this blog and in other mindfulness resources.  Some of these could prove useful for you in this time of stress and uncertainty:

  • Mindful walking – consciously walking slowly and being aware of the pressure of your toes and soles on the ground.  There are a range of videos on mindful walking on YouTube©.
  • Mindful eating – eating slowly while being conscious of presentation (how it looks), taste, texture, aroma and touch.
  • Engaging with nature – Nature is a proven source of emotional healing and mental health.  There are a number of ways to experience the benefits of nature.
  • Exercising – There are endless books and articles on the benefits of exercise, and it is considered one of the antidotes for depression.  Some people prefer yoga as their form of exercise and Jill Satterfield has her own YouTube© Channel dedicated to ways to combine yoga with somatic awareness. 
  • Tai Chi – often called “mindfulness-in-action”.  Harvard Medical School recently published the results of extensive research into the benefits of Tai Chi and provided an explanation and exercises for each benefit in its publication, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.  The benefits of Tai Chi include less stress, a healthier heart, positive mood and a clearer mind as well as better balance and coordination and reduced physical pain.
  • Taking compassionate action – going beyond self-absorption to helping others in need.  An interesting new development is the Adopt a Grandparent Campaign (given the increased isolation of the elderly because of the Coronavirus).  Taking compassionate action can have numerous forms and is limited only by your awareness and creativity.  Compassionate action includes being aware of, and communicating with, a friend or family member who may be experiencing loneliness.
  • Use waiting time to develop awareness – our typical default when we have to wait for something is to grab for our phone.  We could use waiting time instead to develop our natural awareness.
  • Expressing gratitude – neuroscience has shown the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing, not only for the recipient of the expression of appreciation but also the giver.  However, you don’t even have to express appreciation to others to gain a health benefit from being grateful.  There are many ways to develop gratitude and reap its benefits.
  • Tuning into sounds – you can adopt a natural awareness approach by tuning into sounds around you (both your immediate surrounds and your external environment).  Alternatively, you can be more goal-focused in your awareness, e.g. focusing on the “room tone”.
  • Establishing a mindfulness reminder – we can use something that occurs frequently throughout our day to be reminded of the need to be mindful.   People have used a wide range of things as reminders, e.g. when the phone rings or when they boil the jug/make a cup of coffee, they take a few mindful breaths or steps.  All it takes, according to Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is “one mindful breath a day”.

Create small habits to build sustainability

Clearly you can’t do it all and if you attempt to do too much, your new habit will not be sustainable.  Start small – Dr. V.J. Fogg suggests that you create tiny habits, breaking larger habits down to their “smallest accessible practice”.   Do something that fits with you personally – you don’t have to achieve what others are doing.  Be prepared to adopt a trial-and-error approach and change your habit(s) where appropriate – there is no one approach that suits everybody.

Building and maintaining a positive mindset

You can enhance your positive mindset by listening to presentations that are uplifting.  These can take the form of podcasts, videos or other sources of positively oriented communications.  TED Talks©, for example, offer “ideas worth sharing” and include inspirational stories, innovations and creative problem solving. 

There are numerous presenters who work in the mindfulness space and offer encouraging and supportive communications via videos and audio
podcasts.  One particular example that comes to mind is Dr. Jud Brewer who has commenced producing short 5-minute videos on his YouTube
Channel
© covering timely topics such as:

  • 5 simple habits for good mental hygiene
  • Using kindness to create connection during a crisis
  • Working with uncertainty
  • How to spread connection instead of contagion
  • How fear and uncertainty lead to anxiety.

One of Jud’s videos focuses on “how to stop compulsively checking the news”.  Even in the best of times, the news can be disturbing, disorienting and confusing, yet we are tempted to feast on the news.  Cilla Murphy, a teacher who has just experienced 7 weeks in lockdown in China offers a number of very important learnings from her experience and her advice about the news is:

Try not to listen to/read/watch too much media. It WILL drive you crazy. There is [such] a thing as too much!

Reflection

There are so many options in terms of mindfulness practices that can help us in times of uncertainty and anxiety.  We can become overwhelmed by the variety and endless choices.  The secret to habit change is to start small and maintain the new habit for a reasonable time (to test it and embed it in our daily life). 

One sustainable habit can lead to another…and another.  We should not be discouraged by the magnitude of the changes we need to make – we can chip away at them progressively with the aid of meditation and mindfulness practice.  It takes time to overcome our self-protective mechanisms if we are to achieve significant changes in our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly self-aware, develop our focused intention and build resilience to overcome setbacks on the road to sustainable change.

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Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ 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.

Self-Praise for Health and Wellness and to Make a Difference

In a recent email newsletter, Leo Babauta reminded us of the need to “train your mind with praise”.  So often we beat up on ourselves for falling short, for failure to perform to expectations (ours and others) or for an oversight or omission.  Our negative self-stories take over and cause us to procrastinate and avoid pursuing what is really meaningful in our life.  Leo argues that “shame is a bad teacher” – praise for our self serves to reinforce positive thoughts, emotions and behaviour and leads to good outcomes for others.  Leo readily shared how he uses self-praise to strengthen the good habits in his life.  Elsewhere he freely shared what enabled him to change his life when he was in a bad place.

Christine Wesson reminds us that the benefits of self-praise include growth of self-confidence. She highlights the fact that what we focus on develops and grows (whether positive or negative) and that, if we appreciate ourselves, others take their cue from our demeanour and appreciate us as well.

What can you praise yourself for today?

You can praise yourself for the numerous positive, small things you do in your day such as:

  • Stopping what you were doing and attentively listening to your child or partner
  • Being fully present when you give your partner a “good morning” kiss
  • Writing that piece for your blog or newsletter or service provider
  • Reading something about an act of kindness
  • Expressing genuine appreciation to someone – your partner, child, waiter/waitress, taxi driver
  • Responding promptly to an enquiry from a friend, relative, client or customer
  • Genuinely sharing your feelings with someone close to you
  • Making time to be with a friend
  • Offering to give someone a lift
  • Letting someone into the traffic line who was obviously at a disadvantage
  • Making good use of waiting time to focus on awareness (and not your phone)
  • Stopping to appreciate the beauty of nature – the ocean, sunset, sunrise, trees, flowers or birds
  • Helping someone in need
  • Expressing loving kindness towards someone or a group in your meditation
  • Taking time to exercise – Tai Chi, walking, gym work, playing tennis, going for a run
  • Resisting the temptation to do something else while taking a phone call – being fully present to the speaker.

Really, the list is endless – there is so much that you do during any one day that is praiseworthy – that makes life better for yourself or someone else.  You do not have to realise major accomplishments to make a difference in the world – it is the small things that add up to significant positive outcomes for yourself (and your capacity to be kind to others), your mood (which is contagious), your interactions with others and your close relationships.

Just as it is important to give ourselves praise, it is also vital to provide positive feedback to others in the form of genuine appreciation that is timely and specific – you can make their day with a simple act of praise.

Reflection

It seems to be anti-cultural to praise ourselves – it is a lot easier to be “down on our self”.  Self-praise builds self-confidence and helps to reinforce our positive thinking and behaviour.  It serves to push aside our negative self-stories.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can learn to appreciate and praise what we do that is healthy for our self and makes a difference (however small) in the lives of people we interact with. It does not take a lot of time to praise our self, but the effect is cumulative and flows over to all the arenas of our life (whether home, work or sports activity).

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Image by Foundry Co 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 Kindness through Meditation

Neuroscientists tell us that we become what we focus on because the act of focusing and paying attention creates new or deepened neural pathways in our brain.  So if we are constantly obsessed with criticism – finding fault – then this stance begins to pervade our whole life, and nothing will ever satisfy us.  So too if we develop kindness through meditation, our thoughts and actions become kinder towards ourselves and others.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, offers a specific guided meditation designed to develop kindness.  This meditation podcast is one of the weekly podcasts offered by Diana or one of her colleagues on a weekly basis through MARC – drawing on personal experience, dedicated research and the wisdom of the global mindfulness community.  The kindness meditation as with most MARC meditations begins with being grounded and then moves to offering kindness to ourselves followed by kindness to others.

Becoming grounded in meditation

There are multiple ways to become grounded – becoming focused, still and fully present.  Often, we can start with deep breathing to enable our body and mind to relax and increase awareness of our bodily sensations.  This enables our focus to move inwards and away from the distractions and intensity of the day – away from the anxiety, negative thoughts and worries associated with meeting deadlines, doing presentations, dealing with conflict or challenging interactions with colleagues or salespeople in stores and supermarkets.

Once we gain some sense of balance and ease with deep breathing, we can move on to undertake a body scan.  This entails progressively noticing the various parts of our body and related bodily sensations, releasing any tension and tightness as we progress.  We can observe the firmness of our feet on the floor, straightness of our back, weight of our thighs on the seat, the pressure on our back from the chair and the tingling and warmth from energy flow in our fingers.  Observation will lead to awareness of tension which we can release as we go – tautness in our shoulders and arms, rigidity in our stomach, stiffness in our neck or tightness in our jaw, forehead or around the eyes.  It is important to focus on tension release and not seek to work out why we are so uptight or tense or, even more importantly, to avoid “beating up” on ourselves or being unkind towards our self because of the “failing” or deficiency” represented by our tension.

Finding our anchor in meditation

The next stage of the meditation is to find an anchor that we can continuously return to in the event of distractions or loss of focus – an anchor to stop us from being carried away by the tide of our thoughts or emotions.  An anchor is a personal choice – what works for one person, may not work for another.  Typically people choose their breath, sounds in the room or some physical contact point.

You can focus in on your breath – bringing your attention to where you most readily experience breathing – in your chest, through your nose or in your abdomen. For instance, you can increase your awareness of the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath and choose to rest in the space between your in-breath and out-breath.

Another possible anchor is listening to the sounds in your room – listening without interpreting, not trying to identify the nature or source of a sound and avoiding assigning a feeling, positive or negative, to the sound.  You can develop a personal preference for using your “room tone” as your anchor.

Choosing a physical contact point in your body is a useful anchor because it enables you to ground yourself wherever you happen to be – whether at work or home or travelling.  It can help you to turn to awareness rather than your phone whenever you have waiting time.  An example is to focus on the firmness of your feet on the ground, the floor of your room or the floor of your car (when it is not moving!).  My personal preference is to anchor myself by joining my fingers together and feeling the sensations of warmth, energy and strength that course through the points of contact of the fingers.

Whatever you choose as an anchor, the purpose is to be enable you to return your attention to the focus of your meditation and, in the process, build your awareness muscle.  As Diana reminds us, “minds do wander” – we can become “lost in thought”, distracted by what’s happening around us,  planning our day, worrying about an important meeting, thinking of the next meal, analysing a political situation or indulging in any one of numerous ways that we “live in our minds”.

Throughout the process of grounding, it is important to be kind to our self – not berating our self for inattention or loss of focus, not assigning negative labels to our self, such as “weak”, “distractible”, or any other derogatory term.

Kindness meditation

The kindness meditation begins with focusing on someone who is dear to us – our life partner, a family member, a work colleague or a close friend.  Once you have brought the person into focus, the aim is to extend kind intentions to them – you might wish them peace and tranquillity, protection and safety, good health and strength, happiness and equanimity, the ease of wellness or a combination of these desirable states.

You can now envisage yourself receiving similar or different expressions of kind intentions from the same person.  This can be difficult to do – so we need to be patient with this step and allow our self to be unsuccessful at the start (without self-criticism or unkindness towards our self).  We can try to become absorbed in, and fully present to, the positive feeling of being appreciated and loved. Drawing on our memories of past expressions of kindness by the focal person towards us, can help us overcome the barriers to self-kindness.

You can extend your meditation by focusing your loving kindness meditation on others, particularly those people you have difficulty with or are constantly in conflict with.  We can also extend our kindness meditation by forgiving our self and others for hurt that has been caused.

Reflection

Kindness meditation helps us to grow in mindfulness – to become more aware of others, the ways we tend to diminish our self, our bodily sensations and our thoughts and feelings.  It assists us to develop self-regulation – learning to maintain focus and attention, controlling our anger and criticism (of our self and others) and being open to opportunities and possibilities.   Through the focus on kindness, we can become kinder to our self and others (even those we have difficulty with).

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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.

How to Develop Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her book The Little Book of Being, suggests that as we grow in mindfulness, we can more readily develop natural awareness (awareness that is not goal-oriented, but involves being conscious of experiencing awareness itself).  She maintains that natural awareness can give rise to deep internal changes that can be sustained over a period or experienced intermittently.  These changes involve a clarification of our life purpose and the desire to achieve alignment in our daily lives.

Diana argues that natural awareness is difficult to maintain but whenever realised it takes us into a state of profound peace and equanimity.  This state enables us to better manage the vicissitudes of life – the waves of challenge and disturbance that are an integral part of being human. 

Developing Natural Awareness

Diana suggests several ways that you can develop natural awareness as a part of your everyday life:

  • While undertaking a simple daily task like washing the dishes, focus your attention on the sensations associated with this action, e.g. the visual realisation of the suds that arise when dish washing liquid is added to the water, the sensation of the hot water on your hands, the sense of accomplishment or associated relief from completing an often unwelcome task.
  • Consciously monitoring how you spend your time during the day and deciding to let go of activities that take you away from alignment with your life purpose, e.g. watching “soap operas” or “reality television”, spending time criticising others/the government/service providers, reading magazines that are based on rumour and gossip or holding onto anger or resentment.
  • Ask yourself, “Who would you be if you were fully you?” and engage in deep listening as you attend to what emerges from this brief reflection.
  • Imagine something that is deep and boundless such as the ocean depths; something that is expansive and ever-changing such as the clouds in the sky; or something that is brilliant and visually contrasting such as a sunrise or sunset.
  • Notice what has changed inside you when you effortlessly handle a disruption to your meditation practice, an annoying comment from an spiteful person, an unwarranted criticism or time spent waiting for public transport.
  • Find a “new address” by moving out of Envy Boulevard or “Anxiety Street” or any other self-absorbed position or location – moving progressively instead to a new place to reside such as “Joy Avenue”.
  • Consciously avoid foods that cause inflammation in your body and negatively impact your health and well-being, and practise mindful eating with health-promoting foods.

Reflection

Natural awareness is a desirable outcome flowing from meditation and the associated growth in mindfulness.  With natural awareness we can experience deep personal insight and change, clarify our life purpose and progressively move to achieve alignment with that purpose in our daily activities – our words, our actions and how we spend our time.  This integration leads to sustainable happiness.

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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.