Mindfulness and the six paths of meditation

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Further to the recent article I wrote on Matthieu Ricard on Altruism and the talk he gave at the Action for Happiness event in London, I bought his book at the event and have been reading it ever since. The book is called Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. It is 700 pages in length, with a total of 149 pages at the end of references. So it is not a quick read, but well worth it never the less.

One of the chapters in the book deals with “Training the Mind” and I found it fascinating to see the references to the Mindfulness meditation practices that I have been following and their roots in the Buddhist meditation techniques Mathieu was discussing. Of the 6 meditation practices in Buddhism, the mindfulness approach appears to focus on the first three. The three that appear not to be covered in the  – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction mindfulness programme I follow are – visualisation of mental images, fearlessness and devotion.  The techniques he talks about that I follow and use are as follows:

Focused Attention:

This is where you sit and focus on the Breath. The breathing in and out, the tiny gap at the top and at the bottom of every breath you take. Focusing your mind on the present moment of breathing and not allowing it to wander off into the myriad of thoughts that we all have every moment of every day.

Open Presence

Meditation on open presence consists of letting your mind rest in a clear state, at once vast and vivid. The mind is not focused on any particular object but remains completely present. When thoughts arise, the idea is to let them come and go and not to dwell on them. The MBSR approach is to think of a sky, with the clouds containing the memories, thoughts, and feelings. Attaching them to the clouds and letting them drift off. I tend to think of post-it notes that I write on, attach them to the clouds and then watch as they drift off.

Altruistic love combined with compassion:

This is one of the MBSR meditations that I have followed regularly. The practice involves reciting the following:

May xxx be safe and free from suffering

May xxx be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be

May xxx have ease of being

Where the xxx, for the first round is I. For the second extends itself out to loved ones, then the third round out to friends, fourth round strangers and finally every living being on the planet. This is at the heart of what Matthieu talks about in terms of creating a compassionate and altruistic mindset. I love this meditation and it is one of the ones I practice all the time. 

I would love to know which practice you enjoy, or even if you practice other techniques that I could learn as well. Maybe, you have techniques that involve the other three paths of meditation – visualisation of mental images, fearlessness and devotion.

As always, I leave you with a quote….

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Thích Nhất Hạnh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Walking, emotions and lots of cows

“Facts are like cows. If you look them in the face long enough, they generally run away.” Dorothy L. Sayers

What a weird title to a post, you might think. But hang on for the next few sentences and you will get the connections. One of the favorite past times in England is going for walks in the country. The UK is blessed with lots of public footpaths, bridleways and tracks that traverse the countryside. We decided to take the dogs and walk a circular walk taking in a couple of villages near where we live. The plan was to walk to one village, stop for a light bite of lunch at a pub and then walk back home. About 8 km or 5 miles in total. Off we go and it is great. Across two fields, watching the birds flying about, the dogs chasing smells. Out in the sunshine. All is well.

Till we get to the field at the bottom of the hill. The path goes straight through the field and in it is a herd of cows. Now cows are inquisitive creatures by nature and dogs and cows generally do not mix. Especially if the cows have calves, they tend to get defensive and charge. However, these were young cows all facing away, munching on grass. My heart was in my throat as we walked around the edge of the field, furthest away from them. Images of rampaging bovines, tossed bloodied bodies, sprung to mind. Whilst at the same time, trying to control dogs on leads, watch the cows, avoid the large wet cow pats and keep walking to the far end of the field. We made it and my heart rate slowly went back to normal.

We walked, without further issues to the pub for the light lunch. Afterwards, we continued on our way. The very first field we came to, bingo, more cows. This time, all of them looking at us, most of them with horns. We were unified in our decision. There was no way we were going to go into that field. Diversion time. Checking the map – yes we brought one with us – we decided to traverse another field to try to get onto the path a different way.

Walking across another field and double bingo, there appeared another group of cows, this time led by a bull. A quick about turn and back we went. Our original route, plus diversion were now blocked. This meant a longer walk on a different path. It was sunny. We had water and snacks, so why not carry on? We did and after walking along a long track, we came to another field. And yes, there were more cows in it. By this time, we decided to walk along the edge of the field and away from the cows, in the direction we needed.

Did my heart race this time? No. Was I worried? No? I was cautious. We knew that if we kept to the edge of the field; you can jump over most fences; walked reasonably quickly; with the dogs on leads; the cows ignored you. That was the last field of cows we came to. We got home and relaxed with a cup of tea

Sitting this morning, I came across an article entitled: “What is an emotion?”. The final section of the article really struck a chord with me. The section is below:

More recently, scholars have wondered if emotions are “natural kinds” at all – that is, whether, in our brains, there’s a single category of thing to which joy, fear, sadness, etcetera, all belong, except insofar as we’ve decided there is. ………. Or perhaps, to adopt a perspective echoing Buddhist psychology, it’s not unnerving but deeply reassuring? After all, if there’s nothing to emotions except sensations plus thinking, it follows that nothing you could ever experience in life, no matter how terrible, will ever be anything more than a bunch of thoughts, plus a few physical sensations. And you can probably handle that.

Link to the article: The Guardian – Oliver Burkeman, What exactly is an emotion @oliverburkeman

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/14/oliver-burkeman-what-exactly-is-an-emotion

I thought to myself. Those cows were not so frightening after all. We encountered four different groups. We were not gored, trampled, chased, or even moo’d at. The most they did was look at us, whilst slowly chewing grass. We were cautious, respectful and were aware of walking away from them. So maybe, the emotions I felt were just the sensations plus an over active imaginative mind.

If you have had encounters with cows. or other wildlife, would love to hear how you dealt with them.

I leave you with the following quote:

“Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

Mindfulness – Benefits and Positive outcomes for you and me

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Even though the academic research on mindfulness meditation isn’t as robust as, say, nutrition or exercise, there is a reason why it’s been around for literally thousands of years. And we’re starting to get a better understanding of why it seems to be beneficial for so many aspects of life, from disease and pain management, to sleep, to control of emotions.

With that in mind, here are a list of reasons why you might want to consider incorporating mindfulness meditation into your daily life. I’ve collected these from a number of articles.

1. It lowers stress — literally. Anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is the formal programme, recognised by the UK NHS, that is the most often quoted programme. Memory improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase. In short, regular meditators are happier and more contented, while being far less likely to suffer from psychological distress. Research published in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it’s also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

2. It can reduce chronic pain.The work that Jon Kabat Zin prove that mindfulness enhances mental and physical wellbeing and reduces chronic pain. Clinical trials show that mindfulness is at least as effective as the main prescription painkillers while also enhancing the body’s natural healing systems.

3. It can make your results better. Mindfulness improves working memory, creativity, attention span and reaction speeds. It also enhances mental and physical stamina and resilience.

4. It improves emotional intelligence. It helps with the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. “emotional intelligence is the key to both personal and professional success”

5. It could help people with arthritis. A 2011 study in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease shows that even though mindfulness training may not help to lessen pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis, it could help to lower their stress and fatigue.

6. Mindfulness is at least as good as drugs or counselling for the treatment of clinical-level depression. One structured programme known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

7. It works as the brain’s “volume knob.” Ever wondered why mindfulness meditation can make you feel more focused? It’s because it helps the brain to have better control over processing pain and emotions, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms (which play a role in what senses our minds are attentive to), according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

8. It makes music sound better. Mindfulness meditation improves our focused engagement in music, helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we’re listening to, according to a study in the journal Psychology of Music.

9. It helps us even when we’re not actively practicing it. You don’t have to actually be meditating for it to still benefit your brain’s emotional processing. That’s the finding of a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which shows that the amygdala brain region’s response to emotional stimuli is changed by meditation, and this effect occurs even when a person isn’t actively meditating.

10. It could help your doctor be better at their job. Doctors, listen up: Mindfulness meditation could help you better care for your patients. Research from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that doctors who are trained in mindfulness meditation are less judgmental, more self-aware and better listeners when it comes to interacting with patients.

11. It makes you a better person. It it can also benefit people we interact with, by making us more compassionate, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities found that meditation is linked with more virtuous, “do-good” behavior.

12. It could make going through cancer just a little less stressful. Research from the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine shows that mindfulness coupled with art therapy can successfully decrease stress symptoms among women with breast cancer. And not only that, but imaging tests show that it is actually linked with brain changes related to stress, emotions and reward.

13. It could help with other non-cancer related illnesses. Clinical trials show that mindfulness improves mood and quality of life in chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and lower-back pain, in chronic functional disorders such as IBS, and in challenging medical illnesses, and multiple sclerosis.

14. Finally, It can help you sleep better. A University of Utah study found that mindfulness training can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can also help us sleep better at night. “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was associated with lower activation at bedtime, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress”.

so what have you got to lose by trying it? If you want any help, do get in touch.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” ― Bernard M. Baruch

Play and why it is so important to help Depression, Work and Relationships

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Alan W. Watts

This is the second half of my article on the recent book I read: Play: How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,written by Doctor Stuart Brown

There are two further parts of the book that touched me deeply, they concerned what is non-play and its link to depression and play and relationships. The first subject I’d like to share concerns “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression. If you check out the definition of depression:

Definition: Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn’t worth living. More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness, nor is it something that you can simply “snap out” of.

You begin to realise that play is as fundamental to happiness in life as almost anything else. Play, by its very nature is joyful, fun, generally shared with others and requires interest in the activity taking place. Almost the 180 degree opposite from depression.

Where does work come into this, you might ask? After all, as adults over a third of our adult lives are spent at work of some sort.

There is a connection between work and play. Both require one key element to be present to be successful. Creativity. According to Dr Brown “Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties….. When we play, dilemmas and challenges will naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out….and play at work is essential

Where companies are beginning to realise the power of play is that play is so closely connected to innovation. The speed of change and innovation in today’s business is astounding. Companies are constantly looking at new creative innovations and play is the key to innovation. As an experiment, try the following:

Try sitting in a room with a bunch of people – all silently trying to come up with a slogan for a household product. It can be any product you like. The task is to get people to sit, think, imagine and craft a slogan to sell the product. Most people will find this a complete slog, a drag, depressing even. However, get them to build a storyboard together, using cartoons, shapes, objects or even role-playing and the number of ideas, wacky slogans and group consensus on the best one will quickly emerge. And the task was made easier through play.

The final section of the book concerned relationships and play. Ok, smutty thoughts out of the way for a moment please. Without the various forms of social play, we as adults would find it very difficult to live together. As Dr Brown states… “…. play is the most important element in love” and I agree with him. Successful, long-term, mutually-agreeable, relationships are based on a number of factors:- trust, respect, interest in each other, genuine attachment, and I would say, a degree of fun and play.

In summary if you want to really understand the benefits of play; to you; to your children growing up; at work; in your social life; and in your relationships, or as the title says itself “invigorates the Soul”, then think about and encourage play in all aspects of your life.

I leave you with this thought.

“Laughter is the sound of the soul dancing. My soul probably looks like Fred Astaire.” Jarod Kintz

What does your soul look like today?

Play – What type of Play Personality are you?

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” ― Plato

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book about Play, entitled:

Play: How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, written by Doctor Stuart Brown and the founder of the National Institute for Play.

Children, as they grow up, play alone, with friends and in larger groups, Play to them is innocent, fun, and carefree. Then all of a sudden, normally in the early teen’s we tend to drift away from play into more adult activities. As adults, we tend to think of play as a guilty pleasure, a distraction from the real world of work, away from social responsibilities; a distraction of getting on with our lives.

The start of Chapter Two caught my imagination. He mentions talking to a bunch of engineers in Silicon Valley from Hewlett-Packard, a company I used to work for. He defines the properties of play as:

Apparently purposeless: play done for its own sake, which is why as adults so many people think of it as a waste of time….

Voluntary: You do it because you want to, not because you are forced into it

Inherent attraction: It is fun, it is not boring, you get enjoyment from it

Freedom from time: When you are doing something you really love doing, you lose track of time. You become completely engrossed in the activity.

Diminished consciousness of self: When you are playing, you forget perhaps how silly you look or act. Think about face painting with the kids. You end up looking like something has escaped from a nightmare – as the kids have painted your face – but you don’t care.

Improvisational potential: In play, there is the element of chance, you never know what is going to happen next.

Continuation desire: We want to keep doing it and when it is over, we want to keep doing it.

I love the following passage at the end of Chapter three – We are built to play.
When we stop playing, we stop developing, and when that happens, the laws of entropy take over – things fall apart. ………

Dr Brown then goes on to define Play Personalities. The definitions are described in adult terms. So what type of Play Personality are you? You might be combinations or multiple types. Are you:

The Joker – most of us will know someone who is a joker, normally at the centre of the crowd at any social gathering.

The Kinesthetic – those people who need to move to be able to think. My daughter has a very strong kinesthetic tendency, always dancing, moving about, even to the extent of having music playing, the TV on, texting on her mobile phone and doing her homework – all at the same time!

The Explorer – People who constantly seek new places, new adventures, or even new feelings, emotions or mental stimulations.

The Competitor – we all know someone who is ultra-competitive, who wants to win. Win always.

The Director – someone who wants to lead events, meetings, and loves organising. We have a friend that is so organised, every aspect of their lives is planned. Try meeting them for coffee and it is organised with precision, timing and you get the feeling that there is no impromptu moments in their lives.

The Collector – someone who collects objects, One person at work collects Star Wars figures. Another collects cars. Each one is happy, Each to their own I say.

The Artist Creator – this person loves to create; whether it is cooking, gardening, painting, writing, music, poetry, etc. I love to garden and find great pleasure in working outside to create a wonderful place to relax. I also enjoy planting seeds – normally vegetables – and watching them grow; looking after them and nurturing them. Finally, harvesting and eating the fruits of my labour. Finally,

The Storyteller – this person has a vivid imagination and can either be a writer of books or a reader of books. This is me. I have such a vivid imagination and loved nothing more than sitting down with the girls; when they were little; when it was bedtime and reading them stories, using accents and different tones to give life to the characters. I went into the primary school on more than one occasion to read to the whole of a year one year group – 80 young faces looking at you as you read them a story – wonderful.

The central question that gets posed throughout the book, is why do we play? What possible benefit is there to play?

Well, it would appear that it is one of the most effective ways to implant memories; social norms; learn new skills; connect abilities long ago learnt with new scenarios and in doing all of this, learn what works for us to deal with the world around us.

I leave you with the closing words from chapter three…….

When we stop playing, we start dying.

Mindfulness and it’s impact on how you speak

“Sometimes when I’m talking, my words can’t keep up with my thoughts. I wonder why we think faster than we speak. Probably so we can think twice.” ― Bill Watterson

I have just completed an extended Mindfulness diploma and one of the sections of the programme really struck a chord with me. Many of the mindfulness programmes that I have come across talk about the self, both internal as well as external. The internal thoughts and feelings you have, as well as how you relate to those in the outside world and how you react to them. This was the first programme where there was a section on Mindful Speech.What on earth is that you might ask?

As well as listening mindful, we can also have the intention to speak in a mindful way. Just as the words, phrases and intonation of the words and phrases spoken to us can have an impact on us, so too can the words, phrases and intonation of the words and phrases we say to others mindlessly, hurt and offend others.

so if we are to bring to the way we speak, by expanding the way we use mindfulness in the way we currently think, there are a number of key aspects to the approach we need to take. Firstly, we need to absolutely be in active listening mode. Active listening is the process where by you listen to others and NOT, I repeat NOT, half way through or even sooner, you have a thought in your head on how to answer the person. I will follow up with an article on Active Listening as it is so important to both work and life.
Thich Nhat Hanh has expanded the wording of the precept of Mindfulness Speaking in a wonderful way:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Before you speak, instead, think of:

T – is it True? Are you speaking the truth and reflecting the truth in the answer you give? Can you feel in your heart, that you are being truthful. I always say, the “truth will out” and even if you try to hide something, your mannerisms, the way you sound, even the way you are sitting, standing, leaning or moving, will indicate truth or lies.

H – is it Helpful? Are the words and phrases you are using helpful to the person and situation you are facing?

I – Is it Inspiring? Do the words inspire positiveness and confidence and a sense of compassion?

N – Is it Necessary? One of my favorites. We, as humans can not stand silence, so we seek to fill silence with noise and sounds. Music, speech, clicking, tapping, we all do it. I have been practicing the silent response now for a while and find that rather than letting my thoughts run ahead and my speech follow, rather allow myself to pause, reflect and then respond.

K – Is is Kind? Are you saying things and discussing in a kind, compassionate and empathetic manner? Are you saying things in a warm manner, without judgement; without anger; without abruptness.

Mindfulness speaking takes time, practice and an honest appreciation that people might find it strange if you change overnight.

As always, I leave you with a quote….

“In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard.” John Grisham