Aligning with What is Good and Healthy in Our Lives through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel, meditation teacher with MARC, provided a recent meditation podcast on the topic, Mindfulness as Alignment with the Good.  The catalyst for her online session was a walk with her dog in the bright morning sun, surrounded by the sound of birds, the beauty of flowers and trees, and the kind acknowledgement of neighbours.  What particularly came home to her was the  heightened receptivity that comes with mindfulness practice along with what is good in our life.

When we practice mindfulness in these challenging times we are returning to stillness amongst the turbulence of a pandemic and political unrest, seeking groundedness in the face of disturbing and disorienting news, exploring harmony in a world torn by racial hatred and the income divide, finding silence amidst the noise of a busy life, and resting in peace and tranquility.  As we deepen our practice, we become more connected to nature and to each other – we can picture other people around the world engaged like us in meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, or the singing of mantras.   We can sense the collectivity of everything, the growing alignment with what is good not only in our own lives but also in  the lives of others worldwide.

Allyson stressed that what we have in mindfulness is totally portable – we can take it with us wherever we go.  We have our breath, widening awareness of our senses and the capacity to feel warmth towards others with a kind heart.  Mindfulness engenders gratitude, wisdom, generosity, and compassion towards ourselves and others.  We can be mindful for others because of our calmness, self-regulation, openness, and willingness to listen for understanding.  We can bring to our daily interactions a healthy mind free from self-absorption, negative self-talk, resentment, or anger, so that we not only improve our own mental health but also impact positively the mental health of others.

Guided meditation for developing mindfulness and alignment with what is good

Allyson’s guided meditation during the podcast focused initially on our breath and achieving groundedness by sensing how we are supported by our chair and our feet on the ground.  She suggested that we take a collective, deep inhalation and exhalation and then rest in the natural movement of our breathing, focusing on the expansion of our chest or abdomen or the movement of the air through our nose.

She then encouraged us to focus on the sounds that surround us – room tone, sounds in nature or traffic on our roads.  Once we had been able to pay attention purposely and non-judgmentally to external sounds, she encouraged us to shift our attention to internal sounds – the sounds of our own breath, sighing, rumbling, clicking.

In the final stages of the meditation, Allyson suggested we focus in turn on two key questions:

  1. What is it I need now – what kind of support do I want?
  2. What can I do to provide support to others?

Support for others could be the simple act of ringing someone to see how they are going, connecting on Zoom, or meeting up in person with someone who you have not seen for a while or who is experiencing some difficulty. 

Reflection

It is easy to be thrown off balance or to become disoriented and anxious in these challenging times.  Mindfulness offers the chance to seek refuge in stillness and silence and to appreciate what is good in our life.  Allyson maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we are contributing to what is good and wholesome in our own lives and the lives of others we interact with – whether face-to-face or virtually.  By reminding ourselves of this contribution of mindfulness, we can better sustain our practice and realise its benefits for ourselves and 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.

Mindfulness: A Pathway to Wisdom

Recently Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, on the theme of wisdom and how to be wiser, faster.  Dilip’s research interests are aging and the neurobiological basis of wisdom.   His exploration of wisdom and the related personality trait of compassion is presented in his book, Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.

During the podcast interview, Dilip focused on his obvious passion, the neurobiological basis of wisdom.  While stating that the research is in the early stages in terms of completeness and application, he did suggest that people who are wise are guided by the neocortex part of their brain (our logical, analytical capacity), while those who are unwise are more driven by their amygdala (responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response).

In the interview, Dilip explained that to undertake research into wisdom he had to first establish the measurable components of wisdom.  His research led him to identify the common elements in multiple published definitions of wisdom in scientific journals.  This enabled him to isolate six of the more commonly used components of wisdom.  What I wanted to do here is explore how mindfulness can help to develop each of these components – thus serving as a pathway to wisdom.  By way of corollary, I would suggest that the  journey towards mindfulness is a journey into wisdom and its many components.

Mindfulness and the components of wisdom

Dilip made the point that wisdom is not a single trait but a collection of of traits – like the personality trait of emotional intelligence, it has several components.  In the section below, I will explore the relationship between mindfulness and each of the six components of wisdom identified by Dilip.

  1. Self-reflection – this covers the ability to explore your inner landscape and analyse your behaviour in terms of responses to stimuli.   There are many mindfulness practices that cultivate this capacity, especially those that encourage exploration of thought patterns, including harmful negative self-stories.  Another example is the process of reducing resentment through reflection that I described in detail in an earlier post.  Additionally, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly developed mindfulness approach designed to guide self-reflection.  Dr. Russ Harris, a prominent practitioner and proponent of this approach, has made ACT accessible to individuals who are experiencing self-doubts and negative self-evaluation.  His humorous illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, provides a range of exercises that makes self-reflection accessible to anybody.  
  2. Prosocial behaviour – where the focus of attention is on the needs of others rather than being totally self-absorbed.  This component of wisdom is manifested in displaying empathy and/or taking compassionate action.   Listening mindfully to the stories of others can be a form of compassionate action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware  of how our mindfulness positively impacts others, leading to a realisation that we are also engaging in mindfulness for others.  Loving-kindness meditation is another form of mindfulness practice that enables us to reach out to the needs of others.   More recently compassionate leadership has emerged as a prominent trend in leadership development, driven by the global pervasiveness of mindfulness practices.
  3. Emotional regulation – being able to control your emotions.  One of the more consistent outcomes identified in mindfulness research is self-regulation.  In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson highlighted the traits that are altered and sustained through meditation practices.   These included not only self-awareness and social awareness (leading to empathy and compassion)  but also what they call “self-management” (another term for emotional regulation).  Mindfulness practice can help us overcome our habituated behaviour and our typical response to negative stimuli. 
  4. Acceptance – being able to cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, and differing perspectives.  Acceptance according to some schools is a defining characteristic of mindfulness, e.g. Diana Winston in her meditation podcasts for MARC UCLA explains that mindfulness involves “paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.  Mindfulness meditation has been used to reduce anxiety in times of uncertainty.  Through mindfulness practice we can also unearth assumptions about differences in perspectives that create walls between us and other people we encounter in our daily lives.
  5. Decisiveness – making decisions despite uncertainties and adversity.  Mindfulness meditation can help us to address procrastination.  It can also improve our decision-making capacity by highlighting the thoughts and emotions behind our decision-making,   exposing our negative thoughts and helping us to maintain focus and achieve clarity.  The Mindful Nation UK report states that one of the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace is “improved comprehension and decision-making”.
  6. Spirituality – defined as “continuous connectedness” with something or someone.  The focus of connection could be the Bhagavad Gita, Buddha, God, nature, or soul.  Connectedness to nature and other people can be enhanced through mindfulness meditation.  Allyson Pimentel offers a mindfulness meditation designed to overcome the sense of separateness and strengthen connectedness.  Christine Jackman, in her book Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, offers the view of a Benedictine monk that prayer itself is a form of meditation – by praying you are connecting with God or some other deity through mindfulness (p.72).

Reflection

This discussion highlights some of the ways that mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom – approaches to developing the components of wisdom.  As we explore each of these components within our mindfulness practice, we can move closer to wisdom.  We could focus on a single component to overcome a deficiency – e.g. Dilip stated that he was working on strengthening his “prosocial behaviour”, specifically compassion.  Alternatively, we can aim to grow in mindfulness and wisdom more broadly by adopting different mindfulness practices.  The research by Davidson and Goleman confirm that mindfulness meditation can alter our brains, our minds, and our bodies.

Dilip’s research confirmed that some people grow in wisdom with age through the recently identified facility of neuroplasticity.  He maintained that people who are active as they age – combined with an openness to new experiences and making changes in their life – can grow in wisdom.  In speaking of activity in this context, he referred to being “active physically, psychologically, socially, and cognitively”.  As we use different forms of mindfulness practices – e.g. mindful walking, mindful listening, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or yoga, journalling, loving-kindness meditation and mindfulness  research – we can increase our level of activity across the dimensions that Dilip identified.

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

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

Mindfulness for Sports Performance

In an earlier post, I discussed how playing tennis can develop mindfulness through building the capacity to pay attention in the present moment for the purpose of competing and being able to do so non-judgmentally (suspending self-criticism).  The very act of managing making mistakes in tennis helps to develop acceptance of what is and to reduce negative self-evaluation.  While tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness, using mindfulness practices on a regular basis develops our tennis performance.  Hence, playing tennis and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.   I particularly noticed this mutual influence while watching some of the women’s matches during the US Open.

Being in the zone

Victoria Azarenka (unseeded) beat Elise Mertens (16th seed) 6-1, 6-0 in the US Open quarter-final round.  She achieved this despite not having played in a quarter-final since the 2016 Australian Open (Victoria gave birth to her son Leo in December 2016 and took a 9 month break from tennis during a lengthy custody battle for her son).  In her interview following the match with Elise, Victoria described how she saw the ball so large and with a bright yellow colour (she could even read the “US Open” imprint on the ball).  She also commented on the fact that the ball seemed to always be where she needed in order to hit the shot she wanted to play (in reality, it is likely that she had moved to be in the right spot to play the ball).   In the match, Victoria displayed heightened sensory perception, anticipation, and flexibility of movement.

The interviewer suggested that what Victoria was describing was known as “being in the zone” – an experience reported by many committed sports people such as car racing drivers and cricketers.  Mindfulness can develop the capacity to be-in-the zone as it achieves increased integration of body, mind and emotions – an alignment necessary to achieve the “flow” of being-in-the-zone.  Mindfulness practices such as yoga and Tai Chi can enhance sports performance and the likelihood of being-the-zone by developing bodily awareness, focused intention, groundedness and balance.

Finding the calm mind

Victoria lost 6-1 in the first set of the semi-final against Serena Williams who was determined to assert her ascendency as early as possible and to keep the rallies short (she had played four tough three-set matches leading up to this match).   However, Victoria went on to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.   When asked on interview how she went on to win after such a devastating start to the match, Victoria commented that Serena had dug her “in a big hole” and she had to “climb her way out”. 

She was able to do this because of the work she had been doing “to find the calm mind”.  She explained that she had learned to change her mindset from that of victim always seeking to ask why bad things were happening to her.  She stated that she recognised that she was responsible for what she did and how she reacted to situations and this had enabled her to “become a better person”.  Previously, Victoria had been noted for her on-court emotional outbursts that impeded her performance and progress as a professional tennis player.  During Serena’s lengthy injury break at a critical time in the match, Victoria was able to close her eyes and go inside herself and draw on her inner strength.

Mindfulness builds calmness and tranquility even in challenging times, develops self-awareness and helps us overcome negative self-evaluations.  It enables us to realise that there is a space between stimulus and response and that we have a choice in how we react to negative stimuli or testing situations.  Sharon Salzberg maintains that mindfulness develops wisdom in multiple ways including accepting what is beyond your control, managing your emotions and response and appreciating moments of wellness and joy.  Over the course of the US Open matches, Victoria frequently expressed her freedom from expectations and sheer joy at being able to participate in the competition and to play champions of Serena’s calibre.   

Body awareness and movement

At the start of the second set in her semi-final, Victoria began energetically bopping up and down.  During an interview following the match, she was asked what she was thinking when she “started to bop around at the baseline”.  Victoria explained that she was conscious of her need to bring her energy level up and movement was her way of doing that.  She was also able to tap into the fact that she started each day with a smile on her face and spent time on self-care to “focus her attention and energy”.

Processes such as body scan meditation can build body awareness, identify energy blocks, and provide a way to release tensions and the aftermath of traumas.   Mindful movement through yoga or Tai Chi can serve to build the mind-body connection and activate the body’s energy flow.

Reflection

Christian Straka, former tennis coach for Victoria Azarenka, is also a mindfulness facilitator with UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC).  He has created a specialized approach to mindset training by developing methodologies that apply “evidence-based mindfulness techniques in sports”. 

Many sportspeople consciously develop mindfulness to enhance their sports performance.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can access multiple benefits that facilitate achievement of high-performance levels in sports, as well as in our work and everyday life.  As with the pursuit of any competence, these benefits are more extensive and sustainable with regular practice.

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

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

Mindfulness Strategies for Well-Being

Dr. Trisha Macnair, in her book Live Well, offers 100 ways to develop well-being.  Trisha has been a medical doctor for over thirty years and developed a speciality in “active ageing”.  Her book is focused on developing a healthy and long life and her many simple ways of achieving this include suggestions re nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.  Here I will focus on Trisha’s suggestions that relate to mindfulness.

Mindfulness for a healthy and long life

Trisha recommends several well-being strategies that are directly related to mindfulness:

  • Meditation – the psychological and physical benefits of meditation are well researched and documented.  Besides being a calming influence and source of tranquillity, meditation improves clarity and creativity and can contribute to mental health by helping to reduce negative thoughts, improve mood, develop wisdom and manage challenging emotions.   
  • Find your happy – underlying Trisha’s suggestions in relation to enjoying the physical and mental health benefits of being happy, is a focus on mindfulness.  This involves awareness of what contributes to happiness and unhappiness in our lives, tuning into experiences of well-being, and making time for ourselves to enable self-care.
  • Keep moving – several of Trisha’s recommendations relate to movement and she extols the physical benefits of walking, yoga and Tai Ch.  The mental health benefits of these practices can be enhanced by adopting mindful walking, treating Tai Chi as meditation-in -motion with conscious breathing and bodily awareness, and focusing on the meditative elements of yoga. 
  • Spending time in nature – the benefits of time spent in nature are increasingly being linked to improved physical and mental health and longevity.  The mental health benefits of nature can be enriched by meditating on the elements of nature, being conscious of the healing power of nature and developing our capacity for sensory awareness while in nature.
  • Doing acts of kindness – the happiness benefits of doing good deeds are well researched.  Mindfulness itself can have really positive outcomes for others as well as ourselves by improving many aspects of our interactions – our mood, ability and willingness to listen for understanding, capacity to regulate our emotions and express “sympathetic joy” and our sense of gratitude (not allowing envy to grow).  Loving-kindness meditation can also enable us to draw energy and vitality from our sense of connectedness to others and facilitate compassionate action.  Through mindfulness we can discover our unique way(s) to contribute to the well-being of others through specific acts of kindness.

Reflection

Trisha reminds us that there are many simple and readily accessible ways that we can use to develop our well-being and a healthy and long life.  The benefits of many of the practices she suggests can be enhanced as we grow in mindfulness.  Meditation itself brings substantial physical and mental health benefits.  The cumulative effects of the suggested practices can be life-changing because they are mutually self-reinforcing. 

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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.

Strength and Sensitivity to Pursue Your Life Purpose

In a recent podcast interview, Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True and Sibyl Chavis, her Chief Business Officer (B2C Division), discussed Combining Strength and Sensitivity to become a sustainable force for good in the world.  The interview was conducted by Richard Taubinger, CEO of Conscious Marketer.

The conversation focused on finding your purpose in life through intuitive sensing of the needs of others and the emergent energy for change, and aligning the pursuit of that purpose with your unique life experience, skill set and ever-deepening and expanding knowledge base.  The pursuit of your life purpose is then undertaken with “deep care” (sensitivity) and the strength of a resilience that can overcome obstacles and adapt to a constantly changing environment.   Tami spoke for instance of her skill in asking questions which has led to Insights at the Edge podcast series – interviews with the world’s leading teachers including mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn.  A recent addition to the podcasts is a 3-Part Series titled, Healing Racism, with Dr. Tiffany Jana.

To enable others to pursue their life purpose with strength and sensitivity, Tami and her team, in collaboration with her global network of experts, has developed the Inner MBAa nine-month intensive program with more than 30 world leaders (including experienced and successful CEOs and experts in neuroscience, mindfulness, conscious marketing and practices for gaining insight and wisdom). 

The Inner MBA program incorporates monthly video/audio training, facilitated online learning pods, a virtual curriculum for at-home learning and modelling of “practice skills”.   This is a crowning achievement built in collaboration with LinkedIn, Wisdom2.0©, and New York University and addresses the gap in traditional MBAs by focusing on inner development as well as the knowledge and skills to succeed in business in today’s turbulent world.

Finding your true purpose in life

During the interview podcast, both Tami and Sibyl shared their life experiences and the influences that brought clarity about their life purpose and led them to the roles they play today in bringing conscious living and mindfulness to the world at large.  Tami contrasted what is available through the Inner MBA with the lack of mentors when she established Sounds True in 1985 in her early 20’s.  There were very few business founders/CEOs who were genuinely socially conscious and spirituality oriented, and of those that were, women were very much in the minority.  

Tami had to forge her own way without today’s mentors and to learn “to listen, attune and lead” to create the global, multimedia company that is Sounds True today – bringing mindfulness and spirituality to businesses and the lives of millions of people.  She pointed out that developing the requisite sensitivity and strength required a lot of “inner work” and the willingness to explore the depths of her heart and mind.

Sibyl’s career started as a corporate attorney, a profession she had in common with her husband, until one day they asked themselves “Is there more to life than what we have here?” A catalyst for changing Sibyl’s career and life direction was a sign in a hotel which read, “Life is about creating yourself”.  Both she and her husband quit their jobs on the same day.  Her husband became a film director and TV writer and Sibyl established Ripple Agency, “a full service digital marketing and creative agency”, and became a writer through her blog, The Possibility of Today.  Ripple strives to assist businesses to “engage in purpose driven initiatives to give back to their target customer’s communities”.  The Possibility of Today blog aims to help people overcome their negative self-stories, pay attention to the potentiality of the present moment, find more clarity about their life purpose and “to take action on things they always wanted to do” – thus transforming their lives.

Sibyl had developed her digital marketing skills through her experience in corporate America and had been a consumer of the digital products produced by Sounds True.  Her journey to find her true home as Chief Business Officer for Sounds True required persistent self-questioning and tapping into her intuition through mindfulness practices.  She came to realise that her knowledge base, skill set, work experience and life orientation were very much in alignment with the mission of Sounds True. 

Sibyl’s life journey reinforces the fact that the inner journey creates the outer reality – persistence and tuning into intuition are necessary ingredients.  The self-exploration is necessary to unearth our self-protection mechanisms and self-sabotaging behaviours.

Reflection

Unearthing our life purpose and having the courage to bring our work and life into alignment with it, require persistence and resilience and the pursuit of congruence (alignment of words and actions).  Meditation, reflection and self-questioning can help us to grow in mindfulness and build our self-awareness, self-regulation and connection to our intuition and creative capacities.

Too often we become discouraged with our lack of progress in identifying our life goal and how to achieve alignment.  We can easily give up and settle for something that is less than the best we can be.  Mindfulness practices can help us maintain our pursuit and overcome the obstacles we encounter on the way.   For example, Lulu & Mischka through their mantra meditation, Jaya Ganesha, can help us to appreciate the mystery and potentiality of each day.

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

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

The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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Image by Lars Eriksson from Pixabay

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

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

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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Image by Anemone123 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.

Meditation as Preparation for Dying

Meditating on death helps us to appreciate both the preciousness of life and its precariousness. Thinking about death and the dying process serves to motivate us to live our lives more fully and more aligned to our true purpose in life.  Much as we might like to, death is not something to be swept under the carpet – it is an every life reality.  Meditation itself can help us to prepare for death by helping us to face up to its reality and consciously build the capacity to die peacefully, with acceptance and equanimity.

The reality of our death

Irrespective of our belief about the existence of an afterlife, there are some inescapable facts about death and dying that we each have to face (not deny or ignore, despite cultural “taboos”):

  • The certainty of our death
  • The uncertainty of the timing of our death
  • The unknown about how we will die – there are so many potential internal and external causes of our death
  • The remaining span of our life is decreasing with each day (we are getting closer to death with each day we are alive – our life is inevitably running out, like the waters in an outgoing tide).

We can live our  life in the light of the lessons from death and dying or continue to ignore death’s reality.  One of the lessons Frank Ostaseski learned from observing the dying and practising meditation is that meditation is itself like the dying process.

What meditation and the dying process have in common

Frank identified a number of common elements between the dying process and meditation:

  • Stillness and silence
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • A focus on our inner life – “profound inquiry into the nature of self’
  • Accessing our inner wisdom
  • Progressive release from attachments
  • Deep sense of humility
  • Deep sense of expansiveness and connection to nature and everyone

The benefits of meditation for the dying process

The dying process is a solitary event – no external person or possession or power or wealth or physical beauty can assist us in the process of accepting the inevitable.  What can help us to make the transition easier at the time of death is release from all attachment, comfort with deep self-exploration and reconciliation with ourselves and with others.  What will help too are the positive states that we have formed through meditation – compassion, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, patience, wisdom and peace.  The more positive our life has been, the better we will be able to accept all that is happening to us at the time of death. 

Frank suggests that we should aim to replace guilt with remorse – not drowning in our guilt but expressing remorse for having hurt others.  Remorse then motivates us to do better and avoid hurting the people we interact with.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful aid in this transformation.

Reflection

Once we accept that life is running out like the tide, we can value and appreciate every moment that we are alive, develop loving-kindness and build positive experiences where we contribute to the welfare of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, and especially by meditating on our death, we can create the positive states of acceptance, peace, tranquillity and compassion that will assist us in the dying process.  Meditation helps us to understand and accept the reality of our death and to prepare us for the inevitable (but uncertain) end to our life.

Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, can provide us with insights into the dying process and the lessons we can learn and, in the process, build our motivation to develop and sustain a daily meditation practice.

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Image by sabri ismail 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.

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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Image by mostafa meraji 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.