Quite often in my own life I’ve used mindfulness techniques as stress management tools. I would often use them to run away from the things in life that scared me or I felt that I couldn’t face up to. These practical techniques, such as breathing exercises, certainly helped me manage short-term stress and also allowed me to put myself into a more mentally resilient state. But they didn’t always enable me to explore my habitual patterns or unpick old behaviours. It seemed that despite practicing mindfulness the same challenges kept on arising time and again. It was only through exploring mindfulness, further, that I was able to understand more fully how it was my relationship “with” the things or situations that I found uncomfortable rather than the situation itself .
Creating the groundwork for developing mindfulness
In the first stages of my exploration of mindfulness I explored lots of different tools to help observe and develop smooth breathing, to develop focus, to be more aware of my physical body and also how changing my posture regulated my thoughts and emotions. I also practiced techniques to develop self love and love and compassion for others. These building blocks of mindfulness were and are essential components of human thriving.
These practices enabled me to be in a position to begin to explore my habitual habits and tendencies.
Exploring our inner world
In Yoga the fifth limb of the Eight limbs of Yoga, contained in the Yoga Sutras, is Pratyahara or the exploration of our inner world.
The exploration of our inner world means being still and observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way. This happens at the level of sensation. We observe without the necessity of a cognitive oversight. We sit still, we observe the sensation and we breathe into the sensation. In this manner we observe that feelings and thoughts manifested as sensations arise and pass away. In this way we are able to separate our sense of self with the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise. All things arise and pass away. Hardness softens. Things come and go. The mere act of observation changes the observed. As we continue to practice this observation of self we are better placed to separate the emotion and thought from our sense of self. For example I might be angry about a situation that another person may have “caused” but I do not define myself as an angry person nor hold anger towards the other person.
Observing emotions, allowing them to flow and acting
This is an example of, perhaps, a best-case scenario for managing a difficult situation:
Anger arose in me for an event caused by another person. I observed that anger arising and felt it first as a sensation. I breathed into that area and felt the anger subside. But the anger was a cause to act and in a balanced and calm manner I was able to express to the other person why I felt anger. I retained positive regard for the other person and kept an open mind and open ears. I was ready to challenge my own view on the situation as he explained his truth to me.
Bringing cognitive oversight to our observation
As we observe sensations in a calm and balanced way we may notice the same patterns arising again and again. We may notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge with the sensations and we may start to notice causal events linking event with thought, feeling and sensation.
On other occasions we may not be able to make such causal leaps. We often want to assign reasons for feelings and this may be useful. It might help us draw a line under things and move on. In many cases however life is so complex that we simply can’t understand where the feeling comes from. Maybe we just feel anxious sometimes and that’s ok. Simply observe the sensation, breathe it into and let it pass. Once again we are separating the sense of self with the feeling. “ I feel anxious now but that does not mean that anxiousness defines me”
All emotions are valid. Emotional intelligence is developed as we observe and don’t suppress the sensation and emotion. It is also developed as we develop and practice tools to handle the information that the sensations we observe are telling us.
Tools for observing our inner world
By sitting still we may observe patterns of thoughts, feelings and sensations arising over and over. There are a number of tools, which may be helpful in enabling you to fully appreciate that all things arise and pass away and by exploring these tools we may learn to unpick habitual tendencies. One of these tools is to keep asking why a particular situation causes you discomfort.
Asking WHY – WHY – WHY – WHY
If a feeling and sensation arises in the same situation again and again keep asking yourself why you feel that way. This exploration may help you unravel deeper feelings, such as, feeling unloved or of lacking in abundance. As we do this we may begin to appreciate that we are reacting to old hurts long past. The you and I, as we were when we were little kids, may no longer seem physically present but the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty-five year old us are still deep inside us. Not only are all our past selves contained within us but also the experiences of our ancestors and our society. We are creatures of conditioning and by calmly observing experience in the present we may learn to become less reactive and begin to create new positive patterns. This can only truly come by sitting and observing who we are. For example as I practice a yoga posture I try not to do the posture but be the posture. I observe myself within my environment and part of my environment. I am within my skin and know I am within my skin. But I am also part of my environment and am my environment. I AM. I am a human being and not a human doing.
We can let go of old ways of being and be present now reflecting upon and engaging with a new reality as it arises at this moment. We can learn to fully love the five year old, fifteen year old and twenty five year old us. They enabled us to be the beautiful person we are now, always were and always will be.
I hope you found this useful
Andy Roberts teaches mindfulness, emotional intelligence and resilience in Australia and the UK
Written in our stars?
At the start of our 8-week mindfulness course we explore how we are born with certain tendencies and predispositions to behave and act in certain ways. For example we inherit paternal and maternal stress and we are born with personality types. These tendencies and personality types can harden over time. The brain wants to fall into patterns of thinking, feeling, expressing and acting or autopilot thinking.
As the neuroscientist Heb noted in the 1940’s “Neurons that fire together wire together”. The more we think, feel and act in certain habitual ways, the more our patterns become engrained. That’s why it’s so important to keep trying new things and walk the road less travelled.
Our autopilot thinking often serves us well. It helps us navigate a busy world full of distraction. However in an increasingly complex world we can overly revert to autopilot thinking. This is particularly true when we feel that we don’t have enough time. When our experience goes unexamined and we take life for granted we fall into the following thinking traps:
- Assuming life is permanent and forgetting the joy to be had from simple things
- We miss opportunities for personal development and creativity
- We find it hard to listen to our gut instinct
- We develop one-dimensional relationships
- We can feel like the spotlight is always on us and forget that we are also part of someone else’s very unique life experience
- We act and react in habitual patterns and fail to examine whether those patterns continue to enable us to thrive
A world of distraction and overly attending to threats
In addition to becoming overly embedded in our habits and routines there are also a number of other factors, which can get in the way of optimal health and wellbeing:
Increasing distraction and choice may lead to an elevation in our stress levels – the average person now absorbs five times as much visual stimulation compared to 1986. The phrase continuous partial attention has arisen over the last few years. We can often feel like we are in a partly switched on anxious state of being. We often face increasing demands on our time as we advance in our careers and build families.
We are hard wired to focus on threats and deficits rather than celebrating successes and abundance – from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for us to focus on the things that threaten us but this can lead us to overly attending to our deficits. As we noted above neurons that fire together wire together. The more we get into the habit of focusing upon threats the more dark and dangerous the world can feel.
As we age we may start to transition towards looking for more meaning in our lives – this self reflection can be both empowering but also creates uncertainty and upheaval.
These types of pressures can make us feel time poor. A lack of abundance thinking can make us focus more on what we don’t have rather than what we do and overly fixate on our work and our problems rather than the things which bring us meaning and fun.
How much brain hard wiring have you had in your life?
If you are 40 now and haven’t practiced much mindfulness before then that’s 40 x 365 x 24 hours of conditioning or 350,000 hours. In truth we are all naturally mindful at times. Great acts of courage or sporting endevour or love or being in awe of nature all bring us to the moment and help us see the world afresh. The challenge of overly using auto pilot thinking is perhaps greater now because of the level of distraction we face.
We know the hard wiring is their in all of us BUT the research shows that attending an 8 week mindfulness course (which includes single pointed meditation) and practicing some techniques every day makes lasting changes to our outlook and behaviors.
Mindfulness helps us to examine life. Leonardo da Vinci was described as the disciple of experience. In order to grow and thrive we need to keep examining each precious moment of life and not taking any of it for granted. By observing life as it emerges we foster gratitude and a sense of awe. But what are the tools that mindfulness provides us?
A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”. Another way of being mindful is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focusing our attention on? Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:
- Our thoughts & feelings;
- Each of the five 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. The here and now that we attend to can be our inner world or the outer world and to a great extent what we attend to is not within our control. Society, culture, our parents, our peers expect us to attend to certain things more than others. And we often go along with these expectations without truly questioning whether they make us thrive.
What we attend to will determine everything about our lives. It will determine success, wealth, relationships and our spiritual and emotional development. It is the most important tool that we have. For example we may have great emotional intelligence, social intelligence and analytical abilities but if we are so mired in habitual routines and drowning in a sea of distraction we will find it difficult to deploy our skills.
Whether there is truly free will to direct our attention is a mute point but as the great philosopher William James proclaimed in the 1880s
“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life..….At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that free will is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Up until that point James had suffered a string of failures and suffered depression but at that point he took some personal responsibility. From that point on his life became a glorious success. And the starting point was that he believed that he could change. He decided that he could overcome his hard wiring and the shackles of conditioning.
Learning to sharpen our attention
Lack of attention can rob of us our humanity. It stops us tapping into our wealth of talents. It can take us away from connecting with people and make us feel sad, isolated and lonely. Proclaiming free will and embarking on a course of mindfulness is liberating. It enables us to connect fully with ourselves and with our environment. A mindfulness course not only teaches us to focus but also provides the psychological framework to enable us to thrive.
A framework for mindfulness
My Vipassana meditation 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 merely creating “bare attention”. It feels relaxing but may merely be a stress management Band-Aid. It’s like sowing seeds on barren ground. When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. A holistic personal development framework complements attention-focusing techniques and enables brain change. Mindfulness provides us with powerful thriving tools:
- Developing kindness and compassion for others
- Learning techniques to overcome our inbuilt negativity bias i.e. developing self love
- Understanding the relationship between posture and how we physically move and mental resilience
- Learning how to regulate our breath in order to reduce base stress levels so that we are better able to see the bigger picture
- Learning techniques to help us focus on one thing – this builds new synaptic connections and more grey matter
- Having tools to observe our inner world of thoughts and emotions. And understanding that thoughts and emotions come and go and do not define who we are for all time
- Finding a teacher
I hope you found this useful. When you are looking for a mindfulness teacher it’s important to understand what their training has been:
- Do they have many years of a personal mindfulness practice either in a Buddhist school or as part of a Yoga tradition?
- Do they have a mental health background and training in evidenced based psychology – this is particularly important if working with vulnerable people.
- Are they continuing a daily personal practice of developing attention (single pointed meditation), continuing professional development to raise their self-awareness and developing kindness and compassion for others ?
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
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
The time we are given
A few days ago a good friend, Emily Collins, shared a message on Facebook which suggested that on average once you are into your 30s you have something like 1,800 weekends left to live (I did the math and thought it should be a bit more). Some people posted that they felt that it was grim news but I felt that it was an uplifting a message about making the most of the time we have. If you don’t believe me listen to Gandalf:
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that we are given”
Research suggests that we find the concept of finite life so difficult to comprehend that we use every power that our ego possesses to suppress this truth and base many of our life decisions (both economic and psychological) on the false premise of continuity.
For me the 1,800 weekends left idea is a validation of my decision 9 years ago to leave the world of corporate finance to do a job I love. I wanted my Monday to Friday and holidays to be at least as joyful as the weekends.
Meaning and joy
Thinking of life as a finite thing makes you approach each day as a special gift. Of course we may already have just a few weekends left or maybe none.
If we look at our daily activities we can ask a simple question, “Does this activity bring me either joy or bring me a deeper meaning and understanding of who I am and what my place is in the world?” Of course there inevitably follows a far more complex question. “If the activity that I am doing brings me little or no joy now but I know that it enables me to have joy in the future, to what extent do I defer joy if life is uncertain and finite?”
The benefit of deferring joy is that it builds tenacity and willpower. In studies, little kids who are able to sit in a room on their own and deny themselves the pleasure of eating a sweet now, compared to waiting for two in 10 minutes, are on average happier in later life, achieve more academically and are more successful in their careers.
The only problem with deferring joy is that it can become a habit. Some people do it until they retire, counting the days away. And in all those long years of denial they forget how to be playful and childlike. They lose their creativity, their spark and their energy.
So perhaps we can look at what we do each day with more awareness and remind ourselves:
– Life is precious and short
– Am I clear that if I am deferring joy today it is because I am working towards something which has a deep meaning and I value (what I truly value – not what my peers, family or society values)
Obviously with 1,800 weekends or so people are tempted to pursue hedonism – to fulfil themselves through consumption (food, sex, cars, houses etc). The problem with these joys is that they tend to be fleeting and habit forming. Because they entice the senses so much they invite repetition and can squeeze out other forms of joy that the world has to offer. Again the key is to raise awareness and ask:
“Am I repeating this joy out of habit?”
“What future joys can be experienced by choosing a more difficult path or trying something new?”
“Does this joy bring me closer to my loved ones, help me understand myself better and connect with new people?”
And finally I’d like to explore the greatest joy – connecting to friends and understanding yourself. Research in Positive Psychology suggests that the greatest building block of wellbeing is the closeness and depth of your relationships. Friendships are not measured by the number of Facebook friends that you have, but through having a handful of friends that know your highest highs and lowest lows, who love you even when you act and look like a car crash, and fill you with warmth and love when you succeed in life.
When you meet such people cherish and love them dearly. Thanks for the inspiration Emily.
Hope you found this useful
Lots of love Andy
Wellbeing and nature
This weeks Breathe newsletter explores the benefits to health of being in nature.
I’ve just spent three magical weeks in Australia and for four days of the holiday we hiked and camped on a tropical island called Hinchinbrook. The island is a few kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland. It’s about 40km long by 3km wide and unlike most of Australia has a sharp backbone of granite mountain peaks rising to over a thousand metres. The island is a national park set within the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Most of the island is covered in thick rainforest and there are dozens of remote, beautiful palm-fringed beaches, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons. The rainforest is some of the oldest in the world and home to many species unique to the island. As you approach the island you get the feeling you’re coming to Jurassic Park
Hinchinbrook is uninhabited and a maximum of 43 people are allowed to visit and camp on the island at any one time. You have to bring your own food and camping equipment and are required to take all your rubbish away with you when you leave. The suggested track to walk along is on the eastern side of the island facing out to the blue Pacific. The Western side faces the mainland of Australia, is full of mangrove swamps, and swarming with crocodiles. You are therefore cut off from the mainland by the steep mountain peaks behind you. At night the only lights are the stars and the only sounds, the animals.
Each day consisted of a seven hour hike through dense tropical rainforest and over beaches carrying heavy backpacks. We woke before the sun came up at 5am and slept at 6.30pm as the sun set.
As we left the island for the hour long trip back to the mainland I thought about why I felt so amazingly healthy. I felt as though every molecule in my body had been replaced with something better. Physically there are lots of reasons for this transformation:
- Clean fresh air
- Minimum food
- Lots of exercise
- No light and noise pollution
But I was also interested in the transformation of my mind. By about day three of our adventure I realised that if I walked in front, along the track, there was nothing in my field of vision which was man made. All I could see was rainforest, beach, sky or sea. There was nothing on the island made by man. Throughout our journey all we had to consider was where to get water from and to be alert to dangers such as snakes and crocodiles – we met several snakes on the path and saw crocodile tracks near our tent!
I’m interested in what happens to your mind when all you see is nature. I think we reflect what we see and fall into harmony with it. Man-made things are usually other people’s attempts to satisfy our existing needs and desires, or to entice us to manufacture new needs and desires. Occasionally man-made things are simply produced to be beautiful. Man-made things force us to make decisions. They play to our senses, they make us compare what we have to what others have, and what we could have. Even things made by man for beauty force a decision from us about whether we think it is a beautiful thing or ugly.
Nature is different. The plants and animals around us have come into existence through evolutionary efficiency. They evolved to become the form they are because nature has no choice. Things flow into a new form in order to thrive. Nature is not on display for our satisfaction. It is arranged to be the best it can be. The plants and animals fight and co-operate with each other in perfect harmony to create perfection. Man’s creations are based on opinions and thoughts. Man-made objects attempt to freeze time and create a false idea of the permanence of beauty, or usefulness. When we surround ourselves with nature we reflect its non-thinking state and become engrained in the moment. We become part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. As you walk along the path and observe rainforest you start to feel that the boundary between you and the forest is illusory. You detach from your thoughts and realise you are part of a whole and not separate.
As we become more connected and use technology to do great things with our lives we also need to spend time immersed in nature. If we fail to do this we move away from our true essence. The more time we spend away from nature, the more we turn inwards and inflate our egos. Our thoughts are fanned and we become isolated people. Nature reflects our true essence of belonging to the earth and the elements.
In the photograph below you can see the rubbish that two of us created in four days – about the size of two or three Pret a Manger sandwich wrappings. Optimising our wellbeing and having great experiences does not equate to ever-increasing levels of production, consumption and material acquisition. Our weak politicians fail to understand this. Growth is still the mantra.
While we were on the island a report came out that half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed in 27 years. Experts argue over the causes of the destruction, however, most of the blame for the massive reduction in biodiversity that follows the death of coral reefs can be placed squarely on the growth of the use of man-made chemicals in farming and mining along the Queensland coast leaching into the Pacific.
I hope you found this useful and thought provoking.
This week’s newsletter briefly explores our biases and tendencies and how they can get in the way of good decision making and collaborating with people. In an earlier newsletter I looked at the limited spectrum of information that we are able to comprehend. This is what I wrote a few months back:
It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality. Not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all. In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second. The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right. The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right. Most people failed at this task, and in fact average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there were less than three objects to observe… Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:
“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us. Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening.”
There is simply too much information out there for us to process.
When we observe with limited perception we tend to believe in what we see, smell, touch and hear and we form rigid views based on that perception. For a simple example of how optical illusions play tricks on us check this out:
Take a look at the clip before reading the next bit.
If you followed the task how many of you saw the gorilla? If not take another look. This is a great example of the importance of attention. When our attention is diverted by a task we can miss the obvious. As Daniel Kahneman says “we can be blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness”.
Just think how often your attention is taken by a task at work or stolen by advertising images, and then imagine how the world is misrepresented by your senses and your captured attention. That’s one of the reasons why its useful to train your attention to make it less easily manipulated. We’re surrounded by optical and other sensorial illusions and these become cognitive illusions as we process the information. Our thoughts and feelings are therefore based on an illusion.
That does not mean that all is illusion and to lack confidence in your thoughts and actions. However it is useful to cultivate more humility and understanding that your view of the world is just one impression and that others have an important perspective that can provide you with amazing insights.
This brings me onto the second point about how we develop cognitive illusions based on the illusions of our senses. Heuristic biases are the environmental factors that have influenced the way we interpret the information flowing from the sense organs to the mind. Up until the 1970s scientists broadly accepted two ideas about human nature: First, people are generally rational and second emotions such as fear and love explain departures from rationality. In the 1970s Daniel Kahneman documented more than twenty types of systematic errors in the thinking of normal people which were not based on deviations from the norm caused by strong emotions.
I’ll provide you with one example of an heuristic bias – the amount of media coverage on a particular topic impacts the importance that people place on that topic, its potential economic impact and the likelihood that it will impact them personally. That’s one of the reasons why Silvio Berlosconi benefits from control of the Italian press. There are many other biases, such as how our parents encouraged us to perceive the world. So what we see, or think we see, is influenced by the way we have see that thing before. We experience the world in an increasingly rigid way and thats why its so good to travel and experience different cultures or learn a new language so that you begin to think and express based on a different set of cultural norms.
These heuristic biases, combined with illusions of the senses (influenced by our ability to pay attention), creates an imperfect impression of the world and leads us to imperfect thinking and decision making.
None of this is a problem! By definition it’s impossible for us to observe everything in a perfect way. All it means is that all of us, especially the experts and leaders in our society, need to develop the strength of humility. The more we learn, the more we realise there is more to learn and that others have an interesting perspective. Deepening our knowledge about misperception and heuristic biases enables us to explore each others thought processes and idiosyncrasies with humour and playfulness . It enables collaboration and fosters dialogue. It reminds us that we all have a story to tell, each as precious and as valid as the next
PS. when I studied the Bhagavad-Gita in India there was a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna about the impossibility of humans being able to take in the reality of their surroundings. When Lord Krishna enables this briefly Arjuna is flooded with knowledge, colour and beauty.
“O Arjuna, I have innumerable forms of diverse colors and shapes. There are many miraculous things that you have not seen before. The whole universe, both animate and inanimate, exists in one part of My divine body. You are not able to see the whole of My form with your sense perception. Therefore I will give you a divya chakshu (divine eye) through which you can see the form of the Lord as a whole.”
Reading ideas :
The invisible Gorrilla Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
In this week’s newsletter I’m going to explore some ideas on building a business based on the values of Positive Psychology. When we set up Breathe London in 2003, we didn’t have a clear strategy or a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve. For my part I knew what I didn’t want to do, ie. to continue working in corporate finance, but it wasn’t clear what I wanted to create or what I truly wanted to do. The picture has emerged slowly after lots of trials and many errors.
From the start the guiding light for developing a new career was based on a few basic ideas:
- I wanted to create a job that I loved
- I wanted to make Mondays at least as interesting as the weekends
- To create a pattern of work that allowed me to explore my interest in health and fitness
- To help other people as I supported myself financially
- Strive to add more to human and environmental wellbeing than I took through my consumption
Over the last nine years Tom and I have travelled to India, become Yoga teachers and studied for Masters degrees in Positive Psychology and Cognitive Science. During that time we’ve both explored many areas of wellbeing, including varied spiritual, physical and psychological practices. This wandering has been an important of what has made our business thrive. There’s a lovely JRR Tolkien quote:
“Not all those who wander are lost”
Sometimes you need to go on a wander to appreciate what’s important.
The findings from Positive Psychology and teachings from Yoga and Buddhism seem to support the decision we made to radically change our career paths. Some of the core findings from Positive Psychology include:
- Beyond a certain financial level, and given adequate healthcare, education and a stable political environment, additional material resources do not make us happier
- People who feel that they are happy and engaged in their worklife are more likely to be like this in their home life
In an earlier newsletter I touched on the idea of the three pillars of wellbeing:
- Autonomy – To feel free to do what you want to do in life
- Competence – To feel skilled in your role, or know resources are available to attain new skills
- Relatedness – Your life roles bring you into contact with people who you value (love) and value (love) you
Its taken a long time but I now think we have a network of amazing therapists at Breathe London, and are supported by great landlords in Jubilee Hall Trust/Coin Street and have a wonderful group of clients from whom I learn so much. As we expand to four treatment rooms and increase our corporate wellbeing events it’s important to reflect on why success has come. We broke all the rules of business development.
We didn’t (and still don’t have a strategy).
We take the minimum amount we can from the therapists that work under the Breathe banner’s earnings, to support our overheads
We want to work with clients to provide them life enhancing tools so eventually, they no longer require our services
We send clients to other organizations without expecting reciprocal arrangements
We have learnt many things over many years of wandering, but the most important thing is that while its important to work hard, you should not take yourself or your business too seriously. Try and stay playful when you build a business and look for opportunities to have fun.
Hope you found this interesting
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.
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
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
This is the fourth newsletter/blog detailing the major transformational courses that I’ve been on.
One of the best was the Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology run by Ilona Boniwell at the University of East London. I was lucky to be one of the first group of twenty students to be accepted onto this course and was amongst the first group to receive a masters degree in Positive Psychology in Europe.
The overall message of Positive Psychology is quite simple. As a race we are predisposed to be future minded. This is a blessing and a curse. We tend to be optimistic about the future and yet dissatisfied and restless. We forget to cherish and nurture what we have and spend our time comparing ourselves to the tiny percentage of the planet who are materially better off than ourselves.
The coaching interventions in Positive Psychology encourage people to focus their attention on what works well in their lives in order to provide them with the energy and confidence to overcome their challenges.
Over the course of two years we studied many areas of wellbeing research including:
– Can you measure wellbeing? For example is it the absence of pain and maximisation of pleasure OR finding meaning in life OR being engaged with life OR some other personal definition of thriving and flourishing
– Is there a value to measuring such things? For example if you can find a valid measure of wellbeing then you can seek to ascertain what the building blocks of happiness are and perhaps align government policy, education and employment practices with interventions that boost wellbeing
– What are the barriers to wellbeing and happiness and what practices help overcome them
– What is the relationship between money, economic growth and happiness
– Exploring the role of emotions on physiology, decision making and business performance. We also looked at how emotions flow between us at work and home and influence our ability to make rational decisions
– Research around what constitutes positive aging (the secrets of successful aging)
– Exploring the complex relationship between the promotion of wellbeing at the personal, group, national and global level. Here we considered wisdom and how as we become more aware of the consequences of our actions we attempt to balance the optimisation of our own wellbeing with those of others. This is a really important area. Its about deciding who is in our tribe and who or what do we care about
– We explored the theories about time – how our perception of time and tendency to spend our energy thinking about the past, planning for the future or living in the present influences our wellbeing levels
– We looked at the various ideas behind Flow theory. This is the basic idea that attention to detail and engagement with the task in hand optimises wellbeing levels. The practical impact on coaching strategies is that it teaches us to set goals which make us feel stretched but not stressed
– One major area of research in Positive Psychology was around strengths – How to recognise our own inner strengths and those of our friends and colleagues and how to celebrate and use those strengths effectively. This area covers how we find those activities in life that seem to fit, the things that we feel authentic doing and make us feel fully alive.
There are many other areas of Positive Psychology but for the next few weeks I’ll focus on each one of the above and how it helped me in my life
My friends Bridget Grenville Cleave and Charlotte Style have written some great introductory books for Positive Psychology
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