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Is Mindfulness a trap?

 

UntitledIn recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean?  A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.

Defining Mindfulness

A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something

Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.

Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on?  This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.

 Mindfulness in organisations

download (1)Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program.  The MBSR program focuses on teaching:

  • How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
  • Relaxation tools
  • How to observe the world through the five senses and
  • How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.

All of these are invaluable tools.  Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.

Mindfulness taught in a vacuum

My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction.  Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.

Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff.  These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.

My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground.  When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.

The Buddhist and Yoga approaches

Untitled

In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop.  Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:

  • Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
  • Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
  • Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
  • Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment

Mindfulness is complex

Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:

  • Our thoughts & feelings;
  • Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
  • Our breath;
  • Our posture

And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.

Is it merely about being in the moment?

download (7)If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to.  Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something. 

For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought  (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):

  • Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
  • Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
  • Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
  • Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
  • Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong

The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.

Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing  an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.

Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.

Sequential mindful observation

The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn.  In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts

Yoga  an example of structured mindful development

UntitledPatanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention.  Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.

I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area

Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.

Challenges and negative stimulation

This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences.  However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things.  By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others.  Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.

Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology.  In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.

Allowing the good times to flow

In the same way that students train their minds to  allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us.  We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc.  That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake 

Conclusions

I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.

Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.

My experiences

For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com

Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :

  • Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
  • Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
  • Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
  • Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
  • Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
  • Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
  • Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective

I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.

In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.

 

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The benefits of Yoga

A year ago I began a series of newsletters/blogs about the wellbeing courses that have inspired me. I wrote quite a few articles about the benefits that I received from studying Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence courses

In this newsletter I take a look at Yoga. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to this because of all the courses I’ve taken over the last 15 years it’s the thing that’s been the most beneficial to my physical and mental wellbeing.

One of the reasons that I’ve left it so long is the sheer complexity of Yoga. I teach about 15 hours every week and often find myself trying to encapsulate its usefulness. Each time I try, different words come out. The narrowest possible view is that it makes you more flexible. This is true but of equal importance is the increased physical strength, the improved balance and ease of movement.

However the physiological benefits derived from practicing the Asanas (physical postures) are just one part of the practice of Yoga. Yoga is a complete wellbeing system. The physical and psychological tools it provides you with enable a diligent practitioner to move towards mastery of the body, thoughts and emotions. In Yoga there is no delineation between the body and the mind. The body is trained to benefit the mind. The mind is trained to benefit the body.

 

Whether or not you attend Yoga classes in gyms or in Yoga centres we can begin to introduce a Yoga practice into our lives. It is not a religion and does not require a special place to practice. It is based on 4,000 years of human observation of the complex relationship between the body and the mind.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing but have little interest in attending Yoga classes then this newsletter provides three simple techniques for bringing the practice of Yoga into everything you do:

1. Be aware of your physical essence – For example, if you are exercising a particular part of your body focus on that body part. In past newsletters I’ve set out research which indicates that when you focus attention on the muscle group you are exercising, the muscle develops more strongly than when your attention is scattered – energy flows where your attention goes. As another example, notice how when you are commuting or driving, your energy levels improve and thoughts become brighter when you sit up straight and focus on your posture.

2. Be aware of your breath – Observe your breathing in a dispassionate way (ie. not directing the breath to make it fast or slow). When you do this the act of observation has the effect of focusing the attention and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. If you focus on your breathing, your attention is diverted away from anxiety stimulating thoughts. Thoughts have a consequential physiological impact. We find it difficult to multi-task and by focusing on our breath we learn to sharpen our attention and enable a feeling of centered calm to reside. By feeling calm and centered inside we are less likely to pay attention to our own internal thoughts and prejudices and more likely to observe the fine detail of the world around us.

In Yoga breath is Prana or energy. In addition to breath there are other forms of subtle energy. If we allow ourselves to observe the present moment we can tap into a limitless supply of universal energy. In my last sentence I’m not repeating what I’ve read in a book about Yoga. It’s what I’ve observed in my own practice. The more you practice, the more you observe the complex relationship between thought, energy and matter. Yoga is a about practice and personal observation of cause and effect.

3. Observe your thoughts and emotions – As you move through the world, continue to observe your thoughts and emotions as they flow through your mind. Become the observer of yourself. In Buddhism there is no delineation between thoughts and emotions. They are bundled together. One does not precede the other. They emerge blended. Through the practices of Yoga you charge your energy levels by allowing a universal energy to flow through you. You feel light, connected and balanced. As you feel connected you feel less isolated and more confident in the world around you and your place within it. Once you cease to observe your thoughts they can wander and become scattered. This scatters the energy you have built up. Even worse than this is that in an absent-minded way your thoughts may drift to a situation that causes you anxiety. Immediately the energy that you have built up seeps away – energy flows where attention goes.

When you focus on your physical presence, your breathing and subtle energy as well as remaining aware of your thoughts, you charge your body with positive energy. In yoga you focus first on your own wellbeing. From this position of confidence and strength you can then choose to help others.

Hope you found this useful

Andy

New things at the Breathe Centre

Sara is practicing Chiropractic care 6 days a week at the centre now

 

Lindsey is now practicing Holistic Massage on Fridays 12 to 5pm and all day Sunday

 

Zoe does sports massage on Fridays 5 to 7pm

 

Pawel is focussing on Craniosacral, Mysofascial release and Reflexology on Tuesdays 5 to 9pm

 

 

Meditation and swimming

This weeks newsletter is a continuation of the meditation theme.   Although I have learnt and practiced many different meditation techniques I often find it difficult  to sit down, close my eyes and stop busy thoughts.  The excuse that I use is that I live in a big, busy city and feel bombarded with interesting, exciting images and ideas.  In this newsletter I introduce a really simple mindfulness technique and then talk about the evidence base which supports the exercise.

The practice
One technique that Tom Te Whaiti taught me years ago in Australia was to take an every day activity I love (swimming) and match this to a body scanning technique.  This is how it works – On the first lap you focus your attention to the crown of the head and feel for how it feels for the water to rush against it, on the second lap you move your focus down the body to the forehead , on the third your focus should be on the throat, continuing all the way down through the body’s energy centres until you reach your toes.  As you practice this you become totally wrapped in the moment – you hear that noise you make as you breathe out, you see the light making magical patterns on the floor of the pool and how it feels for the water to massage your skin.  If you do this for 20 minutes  its like being fully connected and in tune with reality as it unfolds.  Its euphoric and energising.  You can also do this technique running or on an exercise bike.

The evidence base for body scanning and swimming

  • Your environment effects your state of mind – mirror neurons in your brain reflect your circumstances.  When you take the time to observe beauty (say patterns of light at the bottom of the pool), you create beautiful patterns in your mind – you create a beautiful mind.  I’ll give you one example study illustrating how potentially vulnerable we are to our environment.   In a study participants were asked to sit in wobbly chairs and then rate how secure famous couples’ relationships were (for example Barack and Michelle Obama).  Another group were asked to do the same exercise on secure chairs.  Amazingly the wobbly group on average rated relationships as being insecure and craved security in their own relationships. (Kille, Forrest, Wood – University Waterloo Canada).  Thats just one illustration of how vulnerable our minds are to our environment – so its useful to train our minds to reflect on beautiful things.
  • Training our minds to be mindful and observe what arises in the moment reduces stress (Jon Kabat Zinn studies) and increase wellbeing levels ( Barbara Fredricksons research on loving kindness meditations)
  • Mindfulness and meditation exercises make permanent changes to the way we think – we observe more, are more creative and less vulnerable to negative shocks (Read the Dali Lama at MIT and the Buddha’s Brain for the latest neuroscience and decision making research in this area)
  • When you observe a body part working ( for example during the swimming body scan technique I observe my biceps moving in the water) you build more muscle than when you do an exercise and think about other things.  (Shackell, Standing at Bishop’s University).  Just by thinking about doing an exercise you build more muscle mass than a control group just asked to sit and do mental exercises.  One of the Ka Huna principals is energy flows where attention goes and this seems to be true.

Hope you found this useful
Love Andy

PS:  When I write these newsletters I try to emphasise a few points:

  • I try to provide practical examples of how I use Positive Psychology, meditation and other holistic practices in my life ( I take other peoples ideas and try and make them useful for me living in a big city)
  • Introduce the science supporting holistic practices
  • Explore the similarities and differences between Western Psychology and Buddhist/ Vedic practices  

Meditation training

Meditation in the workplace
In this week’s newsletter I look at how meditation techniques have helped people in the workplace and how some people confuse meditation with other mental states such as sleep or relaxation

Meditation and working well

There have been many studies which indicate that the introduction of a meditation program within the workplace has a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of employees.  There are few studies which investigate the link between these programmes and the financial productivity/performance of the business.  The few that have been run suggest that such programmes would have a significant positive impact on business:

Gustavsson looked at the effects of meditation training on the employees of a Swedish utility company.  The study commenced by introducing a programme to top managers and then gradually to all staff. They found increased levels of trust, team spirit and sharing of information within the team.  One year after the study, improvements in teamwork and other benefits, such as reduced absenteeism, continued to be experienced.

Gottwald & Howald invited 20 employees, from a workforce of 100, to take part in meditation training.  Over the course of the following four years there was a general improvement in the work climate, a reduction in absenteeism and a growth in profits of 300%, (with only a 27% growth in employee numbers).  These findings were confirmed by a similar study in a chemical manufacturer in the US and a mutual fund company in Australia.

Confusion about the “goals” of meditation
The lack of research in this area may be because of the comparatively few organizations offering such training to their employees and also because a general misunderstanding about the point of meditation

Many people perceive that the “goal” of meditation is to deliver intense relaxation, however this state is often one of the occasional side effects of such training.  The goal, if there is one, is to sharpen the mind to enable it to focus on reality as it emerges in the present.  It teaches us to look at reality through fresh eyes rather than through the lenses of past beliefs and future hopes/fears.

Different mental states
The confusion about meditation may arise because of the experience we have had to date – ie eyes closed means a switched off lazy state. Sleeping is a vital time in our day and many of us don’t get enough of it.  Meditation is a state between waking and sleeping/dreaming.  It is a state full of paradoxes:

–       Relaxed intensity
–       Soft reflection, sharp focus
–       Non-thinking and yet allowing thoughts and feelings to emerge and then dissipate like bubbles coming to the surface of a drink

Some of the benefits
When we practice focussing our attention we are better able to do the following:
–       Use our intuition – more about this later
–       Be aware of the emotional signals that other people are sending
–       Zone in to study detailed information whilst retaining the ability to see the bigger picture – tenacious in investigating the detail, but not becoming bogged down
–       It builds resilience – It trains us to be dispassionate about both positive events and difficult challenges.  This does not mean a lack of passion but it cultivates the understanding that highs and lows are inevitable in life and not to fixate on either

Last week we looked at how meditation training disrupted habitual thinking patterns and routines.  Hundreds of occupational psychology studies have demonstrated that employees and organizations that thrive in times of change are those that look at challenges in a fresh light.  Meditation training does not just train us how to relax and not think, it trains us to observe the world with fresh clarity.  After meditation we switch to the thinking state and we feel more engaged and often experience fresh insights.  Insights that are based on smooth dialogue with clients and colleagues. We are better able to feel for solutions using intuition (as noted in an earlier newsletter, the US army are using such methods to locate enemy bases in Afghanistan).

I hope this newsletter stimulates debate in HR departments.  This sort of training should not be about passivity, is not necessarily about spirituality and can deliver significant business improvements for the organization.  And most importantly it helps us create a place of work that we feel we want to be part of, and return to.

Next time before a busy meeting spend just a few minutes focusing on your breath touching the tip of your nose.  Every time thoughts emerge keep returning the attention to the feeling of breathe in and out of the nose.  Feel how cool it is as it comes in and how warm it is as it leaves.  Notice how the breath slows as you focus on it.  Notice how your thoughts lessen and how you are more receptive to ideas when you finish.Meditation in the workplace
In this week’s newsletter I look at how meditation techniques have helped people in the workplace and how some people confuse meditation with other mental states such as sleep or relaxation

Meditation and working well

There have been many studies which indicate that the introduction of a meditation program within the workplace has a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of employees.  There are few studies which investigate the link between these programmes and the financial productivity/performance of the business.  The few that have been run suggest that such programmes would have a significant positive impact on business:

Gustavsson looked at the effects of meditation training on the employees of a Swedish utility company.  The study commenced by introducing a programme to top managers and then gradually to all staff. They found increased levels of trust, team spirit and sharing of information within the team.  One year after the study, improvements in teamwork and other benefits, such as reduced absenteeism, continued to be experienced.

Gottwald & Howald invited 20 employees, from a workforce of 100, to take part in meditation training.  Over the course of the following four years there was a general improvement in the work climate, a reduction in absenteeism and a growth in profits of 300%, (with only a 27% growth in employee numbers).  These findings were confirmed by a similar study in a chemical manufacturer in the US and a mutual fund company in Australia.

Confusion about the “goals” of meditation
The lack of research in this area may be because of the comparatively few organizations offering such training to their employees, and also a general misunderstanding about the point of meditation

Many people perceive that the “goal” of meditation is to deliver intense relaxation, however this state is often one of the occasional side effects of such training.  The goal, if there is one, is to sharpen the mind to enable it to focus on reality as it emerges in the present.  It teaches us to look at reality through fresh eyes rather than through the lenses of past beliefs and future hopes/fears.

Different mental states
The confusion about meditation may arise because of the experience we have had to date – ie eyes closed means a switched off lazy state. Sleeping is a vital time in our day and many of us don’t get enough of it.  Meditation is a state between waking and sleeping/dreaming.  It is a state full of paradoxes:

–       Relaxed intensity
–       Soft reflection, sharp focus
–       Non-thinking and yet allowing thoughts and feelings to emerge and then dissipate like bubbles coming to the surface of a drink

Some of the benefits
When we practice focussing our attention we are much better able to do the following:
–       Use our intuition – more about this later
–       Be aware of the emotional signals that other people are sending
–       Zone in to study detailed information whilst retaining the ability to see the bigger picture – tenacious in investigating the detail, but not becoming bogged down
–       It builds resilience – It trains us to be dispassionate about both positive events and difficult challenges.  This does not mean a lack of passion but it cultivates the understanding that highs and lows are inevitable in life and not to fixate on either

Last week we looked at how meditation training disrupted habitual thinking patterns and routines.  Hundreds of occupational psychology studies have demonstrated that employees and organizations that thrive in times of change are those that look at challenges in a fresh light.  Meditation training does not just train us how to relax and not think, it trains us to observe the world with fresh clarity.  After meditation we switch to the thinking state and we feel more engaged and often experience fresh insights.  Insights that are based on smooth dialogue with clients and colleagues. We are better able to feel for solutions using intuition (as noted in an earlier newsletter, the US army are using such methods to locate enemy bases in Afghanistan).

I hope this newsletter stimulates debate in HR departments.  This sort of training should not be about passivity, is not necessarily about spirituality and can deliver significant business improvements for the organization.  And most importantly it helps us create a place of work that we feel we want to be part of, and return to.

Next time before a busy meeting spend just a few minutes focusing on your breath touching the tip of your nose.  Every time thoughts emerge keep returning the attention to the feeling of breathe in and out of the nose.  Feel how cool it is as it comes in and how warm it is as it leaves.  Notice how the breath slows as you focus on it.  Notice how your thoughts lessen and how you are more receptive to ideas when you finish.

How meditation changes the way you think

Meditation training

For the last 6 months I have been writing regular newsletters about the courses and teachers that have most influenced me.  In the next few newsletters I take a look at different forms of meditation.  This week I’m looking at the effects of meditation on our style of thinking, and given the huge health benefits, what are some of the barriers to starting a meditation practice.

What is meditation?
William James described meditation as “voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again”.

It can be categorized into three types; concentrative, opening up and mindfulness.

  • In concentrative meditation, attention is paid to an object (perhaps for example your breath or the light from a candle). When the meditation practitioner notices awareness shifting away, they return to the focus of concentration.
  • Opening up meditation attempts to expand awareness to feelings, thoughts and emotions as they arise, without offering judgement.  Concentrative and opening up meditation offer insights on the inner world,
  • Whereas mindfulness is the attempt to focus on a stream of experience, both internal and external.

Wilber stated that meditation is a gradual turning in of consciousness from outward focused thoughts.  He notes the slowness of this transition, because of the vibrancy of the gross outer world and the more subtle nature of the inner.  This shift he translated as “awareness becoming capable of clear, accurate perceptions”.  In my Vipassana meditation training the constant instruction was to see the world as it is – don’t take the world for granted, its changing all the time.

In the Vedic tradition, it is emphasised that the outer, gross world is constantly changing and therefore its shifting nature is fundamentally unreal; the energetic and conceptual boundaries of all things being temporary and therefore indefinable.  Sustained focus on the unchanging nature of “true” reality is a source of great comfort at times of chaotic change.

By focusing your attention internally you become more practised at observing what is directly in your presence in this moment.  By being less distracted by the past and the future you increase your opportunities for experiencing new events.

Why it may be good for you
In their studies Baumeister & Heatherton consider attention to be key in weakening the potency of impulses and other physiological reactions that result in “undesired” responses.

Given that attention is considered to be the first stage of processing information, responding to situations in a manner which optimises your wellbeing is difficult if problematic thoughts and feelings arrive and go unnoticed (ie you’re not aware of what you’re thinking and feeling and what the events that led up to that state was).

According to Baumeister & Heatherton, learning follows three stages.

  • In stage 1, individuals rely on others to help regulate new behaviours (ie we follow the tribe – friends, families and colleagues).
  • Thereafter learned behaviours become controlled by the individual.
  • The final stage is where the behaviour becomes familiar, requiring little effort, freeing the mind for the acquisition of new processes.

Whilst habitual thinking frees the mind for advancement, it can lock the individual in negative patterns of behaviour and can place a veil over the link between cause and effect (we pay little attention to our thoughts, feelings and actions and don’t investigate whether they are useful for us).  Increasing demands placed upon our attention would seem to dictate that we learn ever more habitual patterns simply to allow space for our minds to continue to explore the world.

If an increase in habitual behaviour is a prerequisite of being able to function in an increasingly complex world, what strategies do individuals have to ensure patterns are constructive and serve purpose?  Habitual behaviour can be examined by bringing attention to it through meditation.  Meditation raises wellbeing through a number of different pathways including the following:

– Liberation of attentional resources (away from anxiety stimulating events – you become more aware of what your thinking about);
– Disruption of non serving habitual thought patterns; and
– Clarification of values (you get to examine which thoughts, emotions and actions are useful for you).

The barriers to a meditation practice
Most people are aware of the benefits of meditation for a healthy mind and a healthy body.  In this letter I’ve given some examples of how meditation helps us change the way we learn, think and perceive our environment.

So it seems like no brainer – practice training your mind as hard as you train your muscles during exercise.  Being aware of the barriers to meditation is the first stage in understanding how to use your brain so that it becomes your greatest ally rather than an annoying distraction. Some of the barriers include the following:

–       We get excited by new experiences and quickly become addicted to the joy they bring
–       It can be physically uncomfortable to sit still for long periods
–       We can be scared by emptying our mind of thoughts.  Without distraction deep troubling thoughts can arise
–       We don’t trust that it will be of benefit
–       In a secular world the spiritual aspects can seem uncomfortable for some people

You can be assured by the following:

–       Practicing being in the moment does not reduce experience it heightens experience.  You can see, smell, touch much more and absorb far more information.  Refer to previous newsletters – the more joyful emotions you experience the more accurate your perception of the world
–       With time the practice becomes easier and you begin to look forward to it – its a virtuous circle of positive experiences.  The more you do it the more it becomes magical, mystical and joyful
–       The medical benefits are irrefutable – 1,000s of studies in mainstream academic journals
–       With time the joyous feelings multiply which squeeze out negative emotions as they arise.  You start to view the world through a prism of positivity. Suffering and hardship are ever present but by practicing meditation you sow the seeds for a harvest that you can reap in the future .  This harvest will sustain you when times are hard
–       It doesn’t need to be a spiritual practice.  It may well become that but meditation training is a wonderful wellbeing tool without the spiritual aspect as well

Being mindful of this moment puts the world into perspective.  It stops you from getting out of kilter with reality and allows you to experience the fine detail of life as it emerges.  We can experience life in a more brilliant way and with heightened experiences by never taking the present for granted.

“The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they can not alter.” Csikszentmihalyi, from his book FLOW

Learning to meditate

Learning to meditate

This is the third in a series of blogs and newsletters about the different wellbeing courses I’ve attended over the last thirteen years.  I’ve picked the courses, teachers and books that have had the most profound impact on the way that I perceive the world.  One of the most transformational courses was a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Rocky mountains four years ago.

As I left Vancouver on a rainy Summers day I was filled with uncertainty about the challenge ahead.  As the bus snaked through the foothills I was reluctant to leave the misty Pacific and I reflected on the rules that I had agreed to abide by for the next 10 days:

–        No communication with anyone on the course.  This included verbal and non verbal communication.  For example eye contact with fellow participants was to be avoided.

–        No communication with the outside world

–        No ipods, no music, no books or magazines.  Nothing to hear or read or watch for 10 days

–        A simple vegetarian diet with no alcohol, no tobacco or drugs of any kind and just two small meals per day

–        Complete emersion in the practice.  They were to teach us a form of meditation and we were to practice this style only

–        Each day started at 5am and lasted until 10pm.  90% of this time was to be spent in a shaded room sitting cross legged on the floor practicing the Vipassana meditation technique.  The rest of the time was to be spent taking silent walks alone in the forest or receiving meditation instructions.

So you can understand my concern! This was serious spiritual bootcamp. Why endure this when there was so much to see outside – the beautiful snow capped Rocky Mountains.   Why spend time looking inside alone with my hopes and fears for 10 days.  Where would the love be, the touch of another, the smile and the loving support that we all need?

The taxi drive from Merritt greyhound station up to the retreat in the mountains only took about 20 minutes.  What surprised me most was the electric fence surrounding the centre to keep Grizzlies at bay.  Throughout the early part of the course my thoughts kept returning to whether, in the event of a power cut, they had a good backup generator.  I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear just as I was on the threshold of enlightenment.

Before dinner on day -1 we met the people on the course and as usual on such things there were people from all walks of life.  On this course there were four senior members of Obamas election campaign team.  After dinner we received the first of our instructions and from then on we agreed to engage in the practice and not communicate.

We spent the first three days practicing a breathing technique to help make the mind sharp.  Over three days we focussed our attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose – how warm it felt as it left the body, how cold it felt as it entered the body, which nostril it came in through more strongly etc.  3 days focussing on the sensations felt at the tip of the nose!

After that we were taught to focus our attention at the top of the head and enquire, without thought, what the sensation of observing felt like.  As we observed the body did we feel heat, cold, joy, pain, light etc ?

From here we learnt to scan the body from top to toe and back up constantly remaining present to the observation of sensation.  Perhaps each scan took an hour to complete.  Sometimes it felt excruciatingly painful in my back and knees.  Part of the process was to learn to become dispassionate about this discomfort.  Sometimes harrowing thoughts and sadness kept intruding. Sometimes the boredom felt crushing and sometimes when you were able to be truly in the moment you felt utter bliss and pleasure.

At the end of each day we received video instruction on how to improve our practice.  Many of the key messages that came through during the 10 days have stayed with me:

–        The mind is lively and excitable.  It’s obvious that we have a brain to think and create with but it’s also clear that having periods in each day where we train ourselves not to think can be extremely relaxing.  It also gives you a sense of calm and understanding that you don’t have to clutter your mind with thoughts and clutter your life with so much stuff

–        Practicing not thinking helps us become more dispassionate.  This does not mean that we loose passion.  During the 10 days observing the body mind relationship you realise that pain and pleasure are often self created mind constructs.  They ebb and flow.  You learn to accept that sometimes there is pleasure, sometimes pain.  That’s not to say that there is no real pain in the world.  The pain of loss and suffering is real but the scanning practice that I’ve talked about here illustrates to us that pain and pleasure are certain throughout life but that these states are not constant.

–        The  practice teaches us to be empathetic and sympathetic to the pain of others but not to allow that pain and suffering to affect the balance and equanimity of our own mind.  This might sound cold hearted but a loss of hope and negative emotions can be contagious if you let them.  You can only be a source for positive change in yourself, loved ones and the world if you engage with the pain of others but not allow it to affect your underlying state.  A daily meditation practice helps you do this by reminding you that pain and pleasure states flow.

–        Similarly you appreciate that the bliss, joy and ecstasy of deep relaxation is also illusory, ie enjoy it whilst it lasts but don’t crave positive feelings.  Craving and desire inexorably leads to pain and suffering because inevitably at some stage in life you wont be able to get what you once had nor do what you once did.  The practice teaches you to stay open to new possibilities and not overly attach to one type of pleasure sensation again and again.  Pleasure can lead to habits, minor addictions, major addictions and suffering for you and others.  Not overly attaching to one pleasure allows the full world of possible sensations to be experienced.  As you focus your attention on one thing with your eyes  closed it enables you to be present to a stream of endless beautiful possibilities when your eyes are open.

–        Lastly towards the end of the 10 days we were instructed in the practice of a loving kindness meditation.  This practice teaches us to harness the good will and positive energy that has been accumulated during the previous 10 days and communicate it to all beings.  We are reminded that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is meaningless without positive intention.  Many people use spiritual practices as a means of withdrawing from the outer world and suppressing emotions.  Practicing meditation without developing kindness and compassion has been described as bare attention ( as opposed to bear attention).  You do these practices not to become isolated from but to become an active, engaged, positive member of society.

On day 10 we opened our eyes and I felt as though I knew my fellow participants in a very deep way.  I felt re wired, buzzing, energised and fully alive.  The next 3 weeks were spent with my family camping in the Rocky Mountains with my eyes wide open.  The world is so beautiful.  Enjoy all it has to offer.

Find out more about Vipassana mediation centres all over the world .  This is the one in British Columbia that I went to http://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schsurabhi.shtml

Transformation

Over the course of the next 12 weeks I’m going to talk about transformation.  Eight years ago I was a chartered accountant working in corporate finance.  Now I run Breathe London, teach yoga, massage, do personal development coaching and run positive psychology workshops.

In order to understand how I created the job that I love I’m going to introduce the key tipping points, courses I’ve studied, inspirational teachers I’ve met and books that have changed the way I think and feel.

The courses include Emotional intelligence psychometric testing and coaching, a masters in positive psychology, life coaching, Reiki mastery, Sivananda yoga, Hawaiian massage and Polynesian philosophy, deep tissue massage, vipassana mediation, mindfulness coaching, Iyengar yoga, Tai chi, scuba diving and many more

Each week I’ll explore each area to give you an insight into how each of these courses has improved the quality of my life.  I’ll also provide details on courses that you can attend and teachers that I recommend.

Transformation of the mind can never be pinpointed, it’s an ongoing process.  However there are often key moments which feel like tectonic plate movements.  One of the first that I felt was on a glorious Summers day walking across the Domain in Sydney in 1999.  It was a Friday and I was stressed about a deal that I was involved on.  As I looked into the distance I suddenly noticed how green the trees were in the botanical gardens.  They seemed to shimmer and vibrate.  Next I caught the sun glinting on the harbour and felt it also warm my cheeks.  Overhead a Qantas jet banked over the harbour bridge.  I felt my body and mind fill with light and burst with pleasure.  I felt connected with everything around me. My experience merged completely with my environment.  It was as though for the first time I was in tune with my surroundings. I felt a burst of energy which felt like the whole world was powering me.  I wept and life has never been the same since.

Now whether this event occurred because of the people who implanted ideas or because of the books I read or the courses I attended or because of predetermination I shall never know.  All I know is that every so often when I stop and observe the world I feel fully energised and blessed to be alive.

Have a happy and transformational new year

Love Andy

Science playing catch up to the benefits of meditation and yoga

The stress response mechanism is way more complex than we previously thought

A number of recent studies on the stress response system have shown individual differences in the way we respond to stressors are much more varied than previously thought.  Many factors have been shown not only to influence what makes us stressed, but also to influence both physical and psychological reaction and coping mechanisms.  Influencing factors include the environment we grew up in as a child, social status, gender and the genes we inherit. 

The human stress response system, which has often been over-simplified in both academic and popular literature to describe the ‘fight or flight’ response, is now being recognised as encompassing a much larger physical and psychological realm than previously thought.  The fight or flight response has deep roots in our evolutionary past.  It occurs when activity in the parasympathetic nervous system increases (activating muscles needed to run or fight) whilst the sympathetic nervous system decreases (keeping our internal organs switched on, but in a kind of standby mode). 

Other stress-response behaviours recently identified include the “tend/befriend” response (seen significantly more in women) associated with turning to social networks of support when confronted with stressors, and social withdrawal and/or anti-social behaviour (seen significantly more in men).  Both these phenomena have been shown to operate at the same time (in some people) or instead of (in others) the fight/flight response.  The deciding factor, and the new buzzword in stress literature and indeed in other walks of life where “social” goals and activities have been thrust into the spotlight) is “context”. 

We can now demonstrate that meditation and yoga have huge benefits to mind and body

A new and holistic scientific approach is emerging that broadens the scope of the stress response system to acknowledge the social world, both from an evolutionary perspective, and in its current context.  This means for example, that the production and transmission of sex hormones and neurotransmitters actively used in our brain’s reward, motivation and control circuits (almost always unconsciously), are now often measured alongside more common metrics such as heart-rate or blood-pressure in experimental psychology and social neuroscience studies. 

One of the consequences of this new science of what makes us stressed and how we respond to our environmental pressures, is that more complex patterns are beginning to emerge that challenge classical psychology/psychiatry diagnoses and provide testable hypotheses to determine previously unproven benefits of alternative therapies or holistic practises such as yoga and meditation.  These are increasingly shown to mediate the effects of stress through what are known in neuroscience as interoceptive pathways.  These are pathways used (usually unconsciously) by the body’s physiological systems to inform other body and brain functions of their relative fitness or functionality.  Yoga and meditation practice has long been thought of by its practitioners to be the embodiment of a conscious exercise in interoception. We now we have the scientific techniques to prove the mental value of what sceptics have in the past regarded as simply a set of physical exercises.

“Stressed” people can be high performing happy individuals in many areas of their lives

But these physiological mechanisms only go part of the way towards building our unique stress response profile.  One of the more interesting findings, that stress response profiles (phenotypes) are more varied than previously thought and are highly correlated with activations in other physical systems has been labelled our “biological sensitivity to context” – and it means many more of our biological systems that have been previously disregarded when building psychological profiles are now seen as key determinants of the strategies we choose when faced with environmental stress.  In a recently published theory (Del Guidice, et al. 2011) four behavioural patterns emerge that are based in evolutionary life-history theory and are used to describe common stress-response patterns.  These don’t correspond so well to classical psychology’s stereotypical introverted/extroverted, high/low-stress-responsivity models, but they do correspond to findings that were previously seen as paradoxes, such as why people with very high stress-responsivity can be found performing very well in highly uncertain environments, but very poorly in low-stress environments.  Its all about context, and what we’ve become used to.  Also, the physiological and developmental changes we all undergo throughout our lives such as childhood growth, puberty, adulthood, menopause, etc., correspond to periods of high neural plasticity, when we literally carve out our future responses to stress from the biological and environmental tools we’re given (or create for ourselves).

 Developing a more tailored approach to stress management

Another consequence of joint research in psychology and the physiology of the brain in the context of social stressors is that emphasis on our biological sensitivity to context will provide more nuanced mechanisms for treating mental health problems related to stress such as ‘internalised’ symptoms of depression or low self-esteem, and ‘externalised’ symptoms like anti-social behaviour.  “Context”, encompasses a rather old-fashioned idea that’s suddenly been given a new lease of life and when taken together with the new data-rich environments currently being studied in social neuroscience (the study of how the brain works in conditions with a social context) provides a real opportunity to produce meaningful and coherent theories that explain common patterns of observed responses/strategies to stressful situations in a way that is consistent with cultural evolution and medical science – something that must surely be regarded as something of a holy grail to psychologists – and opens the way for tailored programmes of intervention through various means, such as life coaching, social engagement, nutritional change, in addition to medical and pharmaceutical help in resolving stress disorders.

 Today’s blog was produced by Tom TeWhaiti, co founder of Breathe London and Breathe Australia

 

Del Guidice, M., Ellis, B.J. & Shirtcliff, E. (2011) The Adaptive Calibration Model of stress responsivity, Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 35, pp 1562-1592

 

Positive Psychology research about being happy and living in the present

Living in the present

The teachings of Buddhism,  Taoists, Polynesian Ka Huna, Confucianism and many other ancient traditions teach that happiness comes by living and experiencing the present moment as it arises. Humans may be almost unique among animals in that they have the mental ability to plan, plot and dream about the future. We also have the ability to fondly remember the past, replay events and imagine different outcomes as well as beat ourselves up for lost opportunities, lost loves and lost dreams.

The ancient teachings inform us that time and energy spent in such states of conjecture lead us away from happiness potentially trapping us in a state of false imagining. All these other states are merely our interpretation of how our experience once was or how it may be one day. A few months back Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published research indicating that not living in the present was indeed detrimental to wellbeing.

They used a special “track your happiness” iPhone app which gathered 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives. They found that we spend at least half our time thinking about something other than our immediate surroundings and most of this daydreaming doesn’t make us happy.

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that on average, people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

The Harvard study

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them. Contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.

To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love.

“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth, “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the nonpresent.” Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.

Complex time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness. The implications of this study are profound. I can immediately think of two; how the study findings relate to career choice and the impact of social networking.

Choosing a career

Although it’s only a small study, the Harvard research  may have profound implications for the type of careers we should recommend our children to pursue. If spending time away from the present leads to unhappiness and we want to be happy and healthy what type of job keeps us in the present?

For example there are certain careers, such as being an auditor, where you spend your career thinking and examining the past and giving opinions about whether financial statements were once true. There are other careers, such as project management, where you spend your time thinking, analysing and planning for a future.

Our last newsletter highlighted the recent study from Warwick University which once again provided an evidence base for the assertion that happy employees are productive, engaged and creative people. If this is true then perhaps HR departments need to start thinking about how to get their staff to live in the here and now; encouraging face to face communication, taking breaks and doing exercises to focus their attention.

Computer usage and social media

The research indicated that we tend to be unhappy using a personal computer. What is not clear however is the types of usage of the computer. For example, are we unhappy spending time observing other people’s lives as presented on Facebook? Is the observation of other people’s pictures, pokes, movies and formation of groups a vicarious observation of other peoples experience?

The study found we are at our happiest communicating face to face with other humans, experiencing nature first hand, having sex (rather than looking at someone else having sex on a screen) and exercising. I recently heard about a fashion amongst teenage girls at a Cheshire school to be obsessed with posting picture albums of themselves entitled “Me”. These are close up pictures often taken in the bathroom from various angles – Is this strange? Facebook often seems to be a place where people showcase their lives and show off their achievements. Whilst it enables loved ones to keep in touch from all over the world it may also has the effect of making people feel like their lives are lived in the glare of publicity cast by the yellow glow of a screen. When I meet friends I like to be surprised and delighted by them telling me about their experiences. I like to watch faces light up as they tell me about what they have been doing. I don’t feel this flow of positive experience as much when it comes through a screen. Maybe other people really do. There is a description of people like me as People 1.0 and people like Mark Zuckerberg as People 2.0.

Do you think human beings have changed so much in the last few years?

Let me know what you think……

Positive psychology and colour

Is the sky blue?  If it is, do you see the same blue that I do?  Can my cat see blue or does he select from a range of options for how to perceive the world depending on his needs, like mouse hunting mode, infra-red mode, spooky mode?

Philosophers have discussed these sorts of issues for millennia.  Over the last few decades there has been a growing body of research suggesting that how we interpret what we see is subjective and contextual, with many influencing factors such as social context we’re faced with, and our prior learning and habits.  For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique and useful way of perceiving their environment in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world. When faced with a range of similar colours and asked to choose the odd one out, Westerners typically found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour which were imperceptible to the Western eye.

Recent research suggests that in addition to the construction of language and social preferences, our emotional state also has an influence on colour perception.  People feeling more in control of their lives, confident and upbeat about the future can perceive a greater range of colours with a greater degree of accuracy compared to people feeling they have little control over their lives and the future.  They are also better at identifying solutions or opportunities when faced with complex problems or decisions.  Positive Psychology suggests that we can use these influences to alter not only our perceptions of the physical world such as colour perception, but the construction of our mental world – attitudes, biases and ways of representing information.  When we experience a healthy balance of positive to negative emotions we are able to process information in a more accurate manner than people who have a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions.

Far from the Dr Pangloss school of rose-coloured spectacles and naive optimism, positive emotions help us observe the world in a more accurate balanced way. With more joy and laughter we are able to face life’s ups and downs with tenacity and optimism.  It’s a relatively new area of research, and creates useful data to explore questions that reach beyond the scope of its origins in cognitive psychology, such as positive psychology (as joy evaporates does colour and vibrancy leave our lives? Does joy return when we are surrounded by colour?), developmental neuroscience (how and when does the brain change in response to changing habits or new social contexts?), decision science/economics (imagine going shopping on a Saturday morning without the mood-influencing music!), sociology/education (what social outcomes might be influenced by the level of negative v. positive news stories?).

On a day to day basis life can seem tough but the world is full of new opportunities and beauty.  Most of us in the West have opportunities to educate ourselves, have sex with who we want, vote for who we want, protest when we want, eat what we want and travel where we want. Most of us will cram our lives with amazing things and live into our 80’s .  And when we have gone the world will still be a beautiful vibrant place full of colour and light.

Applied Positive Psychology is a useful field because it has developed many interventions designed to improve the ratio of positive to negative emotions. These cognitive games help us to reflect on the good stuff in our lives.  This helps us remain aware of the bigger picture and not to get bogged down in the daily dramas of life.

Our last blog was about Maori proverbs.  One of these that is still my favourite speaks of the wonder of life and how reflecting on this wonder helps us feel full of life, energised, in the moment and ready for a great adventure.

Whakataka te hau ki te uru

Whakataka te hau ki te tonga

Kia mākinakina i uta

Kia mātaratara i tai

Kia hī ake ana te atakura

He tio, he huka, he hauhunga

Tīhei mauri ora!

Let the cold winds from the west and from the south, that assail the lands and the seas, desist.

Let the red tipped dawn come

with a touch of frost, a sharpened air, the promise of a glorious day.

Behold we are alive!

Link to the Horizon programme: