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 ?
How to build mental resilience
- How can we stay engaged and busy at work but not overly stressed?
- When is the right time to push ourselves and when is the right time to sit back?
- How much pressure is good for us?
These are tricky questions and there is no definitive right and wrong answer. That’s because people are complex. If you run or manage a team the relationships you have to each team member and to the group will be rich and varied.
As managers we need to change the way we think of “staff “ and think of them more as our internal customers. Like external customers they need to be listened to and deserve to have high expectations from the organisation. Like our customers the relationship we have with each team member will be nuanced, rich and varied.
We need to remember that people come to a place of work for financial reasons but also because it provides (or should provide) meaning, fun, positive relationships, a degree of autonomy and a sense of shared purpose and structure.
The Gallup organisation, through their Q12 survey, have found the most financially successful organisations have employees who tend to tick those employee engagement boxes.
When we work in a culture like that a heavy workload and tight timetables feel more like a fun challenge than an onerous one. Creating an engaged workplace enables a more resilient culture to flourish and the benefits will flow throughout the team and outwards to your customers and your suppliers.
In such an engaged place of work people develop trust and warm friendships. They feel able to communicate ideas. They are also more likely to put their hands in the air when they feel under prepared or over worked. Stress builds when we are unable or feel unable to express our feelings and motivations. This happens in a culture of distrust when the development of positive relationships are not prioritised.
The starting point for building an engaged, resilient organisation is to build a culture of positive regard for colleagues. It also means changing the idea that people are overheads to one where people are our greatest assets and a source of learning, fun and meaning.
Our next resilience workshop is Townsville, North Queensland
How can we build better mental resilience? How can we feel stretched at work whilst remaining calm, balanced and physically healthy? Find out more at our one day resilience workshop on Friday 27th November
Imagine a world of things that can be sub divided into two separate worlds; the world of clocks and the world of clouds. Within the world of clocks are neat orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated. We can take these things apart and see how they fit together. In the world of clouds are things, which are irregular and dynamic. They are hard to study and change from second to second.
The uncertain nature of clouds makes them beautiful but some how ghostly and not quite there. They are constantly being formed and being destroyed. They emerge and withdraw. They are nature’s great example of the constant wash of creation and destruction. They remind us of our own impermanence. “I wandered lonely as a cloud….”
Does this explain our desire to live in the world of clocks? Things that can be divided and explained provide comfort and protection from the flow and flux. The rational subdivision and explanation of experience pacifies the mind wracked with existential angst. Things can be ordered and kept safe… I can be ordered and I can be kept safe.
From Descartes to Darwin to Freud and on through the 20th century the world of clocks has come to dominate our politics, wellbeing and wealth.
My own background is in the world of clocks. I trained in old-fashioned economics. Pareto, Keynes and the ideas of Milton Friedman were drummed into me. After that I studied to become a chartered accountant. Here I learnt to freeze time at a balance sheet date and talk wisely to people who would pay me to explain how things were, how things are and how things maybe in the future.
I spent most of my childhood and working life understanding how to divide things up and “explain” to other people how things worked and I used information to prophesise how things may be in the future.
My left hemisphere thinking was finely honed. I lived in a world of clocks; of dissected finite time, a world of mine and yours, a world of success and failure. Around about the time of the new millennium this desire to explain and understand the world through dissection started to feel a little hollow. I craved connection to something bigger than me.
The Greeks describe this as Thumos; the desire for union and recognition through the development of a higher self. This is the feeling we have when we recognise, celebrate and unify with one another through the development of the great human strengths of kindness, compassion, bravery and love.
After twelve years in finance I studied to become a massage therapist and found a connection to a higher self through human touch. I felt that I was a good therapist. I felt I was kind and compassionate and provided a nurturing touch, which helped both my healing and my clients.
There were moments when I worked as a therapist that I felt that the world stopped. I would stare at a back and become absorbed in an area of the persons body. It felt like my being was part of the being I was massaging. I experienced euphoric feelings of oneness. There were times where I felt that I could see my molecules and the client’s molecules coming together and merging. In those moments I could see and feel the truth that humans and everything in the universe are emerging systems. We are constantly forming and un forming. We are connected to and of our environment and each other. Dissection of mind and body cannot explain our essence and can only have limited potential in helping us grow.
My years as a massage therapist helped me to develop a holistic view. I started to live and enjoy the world of clouds. I no longer felt lonely as a cloud and fearful of uncertainty but started to enjoy and embrace that uncertainty.
With my imagined or real observation at the molecular level of the floating and fleeting nature of reality I began to experience more freedom in my life. I became grounded in uncertainty and abstraction. The very fleeting and precious nature of life enabled me to grow. I began to gently kiss and caress life as it flowed around me rather trying to hold onto things.
However I still live in a world of clocks. Each time I float as a cloud I feel drawn back to the world of mine and yours. I feel the neediness of my left hemisphere thinking. The desire for comfort, the desire to be liked, the desire for material reward, the desire to hold and grab this precious life and not let this moment go. And the desire to shackle and control my thoughts and feelings and those of the people around me.
I take steps forward and then many steps back. I feel sometimes I have “it’.
It’s just there. It’s there when I see a sunrise or a rainbow. It’s there when I run into the sea or see the light refraction on the bottom of a pool. It’s in the smiles of my family and it’s in the air that brushes my skin.
And then it’s gone again.
After my years of bodywork I became a yoga teacher and this provided me with amazing new tools enabling me to embrace flow and connection.
And after my yoga training I was drawn once more to the world of clocks. I took a masters in psychology and learnt how psychologists like to count like accountants. I was suddenly back in the world of numbers and systems and control. I studied system after system that attempted to explain our inner workings.
But the more time I spent with evidenced based psychologists and exploring their models I began to have the same strange clock like disconnected uncertain and unhappy outlook on life. I felt many of the practitioners I met were not trying to develop Thumos. They didn’t seem kind are altruistic or compassionate or uncertain. There was something about the lack of humility and the lack of positive intention that I found disturbing.
As I studied economics I read more and more work by behavioural economics by people like Daniel Kahneman. I became interested in their ideas that people are more like clouds in their composition and outlook and behaviours.
I learnt how psychology studies were weird ie based on sample populations who were mainly white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. I also learnt that more 64% of psychology studies could not be replicated. I became concerned at the lack of real evidence behind much of “evidenced based psychology” and disappointed at the way many health practitioners use the evidence based badge of psychology to maximise their wealth.
From my studies of neuroscience I learnt that we are infinite selves within this self. Our 80 billion neurones with 10,000 (plus) possible synaptic connections enable us to perceive the world and ourselves in an infinite number of ways. We can try and explain human behaviour through dissection, correlation and extrapolation but this can only be of limited use in helping us develop Thumos.
We behave in ways depending upon context. Our inner systems of like and dislike can not un see or un experience what we have seen or have experienced. We cannot see or un see what our forebears have seen or experienced. We are guided by inner systems of like and dislike and we are intimately and intricately connected to all that is and all that has ever been.
There seems to be one huge mind which has no barriers and no limits and is filled with knowledge. I learnt through my body work, meditations and yoga that I can tap into this universal sea. When I behave cloud like I can use my intuition. I can tap into a source of knowledge and energy that is infinite. It is always there but my yoga teaching explains to me how it is often obscured by koshas or layers of ignorance that bind me to duality.
With my business background and body work and yoga training I chose to retreat from the world of psychology. In the last 10 years I’ve dipped my toe back into the areas of emotional intelligence coaching and positive psychology but I spend little time with people with similar qualifications to me. Accept some….In my travels I’ve been blessed to meet some people from the world of psychology who are filled with love and positive intention. They are also filled with confidence and humility. I’m blessed that they are my friends and colleagues and if you find a coach or counsellor or clinical psychologist who manage to combine the world of clouds and clocks stick with them!!
And now I’m at a crossroads. I feel love and connection in the world of clouds but mainly earn my living working with clocks. I’m uncertain how to proceed. I’m not sure if I’m on the right track but I can take comfort from the growth, fun and love that I’ve experienced since I first started to explore my cloud like self.
This blog will continue but we have a new way of connecting – please check out www.breathe-magazine.com
However by about the time of the new milenium I was a man feeling ill at ease with himself. I felt something was missing in my life.
At the time I was working in corporate finance at KPMG in Sydney. I lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking Bondi beach. I was one step away from partnership at the firm. I felt strong and healthy and had a wide circle of friends. My prospects were good.
But I felt ill at ease.
Part of the unease arose from the consulting assignments that I was being asked to work on. These included online gambling companies, coalmines, an arms manufacturer and so on. They made me feel uncomfortable and were out of line with my values.
In addition to this I was reading more and more about climate change and also seeing with my own eyes how the coral was becoming bleached and dead on the barrier reef.
It became clear to me that if things continued, as they were, the natural progression was towards environmental devastation, possibly within my lifetime.
I therefore concluded, as a rationale economist would, that in order to maximise the utility from my life I would explore new things, stop accumulating wealth and extract all the juice that I could from this precious, finite life. The desire for experience led me on an outward journey to see as much of the world that I could see.
I also experienced an inward journey. I studied Yoga in ashrams and learnt psychology. In the last fifteen years I’ve been blessed to have experienced so many new things and met so many beautiful people in my new coaching and wellbeing career.
The businesses that we have created encourage people to be more mindful of their bodies and their minds. The amazing therapists at our London centre (www.breathe-london.com) provide people with tools to help them see the world and themselves in a balanced and calm way. If people view themselves and others with kindness and compassion then we have a chance to reduce the destructive forces, which are destroying our bodies, minds and this beautiful planet
The year 2015
In all major industrialised countries depression, obesity and the use of anti depressants is on the rise. Why? Is it the disease of over consumption and inequality?
Business and political leaders spout the mantra that we have to keep consuming more and more in order to elevate the poorest in our societies through trickle down economics. But this model appears to be failing. Whilst half the world lives in abject poverty, 1% of the rich control 50% of the wealth and each year this yawning gap becomes larger.
(The graph shows how in each period of economic expansion in the US, the top 10% of people (in terms of wealth) have faired compared to the bottom 90%. Amazingly in the last economic growth cycle most Americans saw a shrinkage in their wealth)
Researchers from the field of Positive Psychology, including Ed Diener and many others, have concluded that financial wealth does not have a relationship with emotional or spiritual wealth. Once we earn above a basic salary and have other basic freedoms such as access to healthcare, privacy, freedom of movement , democratic rights, housing and education we do not become happier as we become wealthier.
Throughout the wealthy economies capital is becoming increasingly clustered at the top whilst the rest of society is told that free healthcare or education can no longer be afforded.
When the fairness quotient becomes out of whack political and social instability usually follows.
But the political and business mantra continues. We have to grow more, build more, and consume more
And the madness is that this lunacy has been exported to India and China. The huge middle classes in these super powers aspire to our levels of consumption. Young people move to their big cities, breaking up families and breaking up ancient traditions. The desire for Gucci and Sony and McDonalds is driving a wedge between them and the things in life that truly bring happiness – a connection to traditions, being in nature, having a sense of duty and community, kinship and family
At some stage in the near future as 7 becomes 8 billion and 9 and 10 and 11, a financial, political, psychological and spiritual tipping point will be reached.
In the west we have experienced the devastating effects of over consumption and inequality. We have a moral duty to change our behaviours. Our consumption will consume us if we let it. We also need to show urgent leadership . We need to understand the madness of other consumption and inequality . We need to provide sustainable housing, healthcare and education to the needy in our own societies and overseas
I vowed back in 2003 that I would not be part of the machinery that led to the destruction of body, mind, soul and planet. When I take new coaching work on I weigh up carefully whether my work will encourage people to move in a positive direction.
The first beautiful picture is a map of the country I love. Australia had a wealth of indigenous knowledge, hundreds of languages and customs. Many of them are lost for ever. When Captain Cook first arrived it was noted that as the ships sat in the harbour the aboriginal people on the foreshore appeared to ignore them. This may seem strange to us but recent evidence suggests that the way we interpret the world around depends, to a great extent, on what we expect or are told to see. Perhaps these alien images simply were not in the range of comprehension of these original Australians. We have no real idea of how they lived in harmony with the natural world and how they experienced life.
We never asked them
The imposition of the mantra of growth, expansion and learning on these cultures has been devastating.
The last map is the Australian governments own estimates of the likely increase in temperatures over the next 60 to 80 years. The lucky country appears headed to become the dead, burnt country
Business leaders, politicians, community leaders, teachers…This is all that counts now ……. Right now…….. Leaders who ignore the science and encourage over consumption and inequality are not leaders.
Building a bright, positive future
If you are working as hard as you can, spending little time with the kids so that you can bequeath them your wealth then seize this moment. Work less and spend more time with them. The environmental experts say that this makes sense
If you are working hard to build up your wealth so that you become happier, then change your behaviours. Strive less for financial security and work hard on the depth and quality of your friendships. Sit quietly and observe your own drives and impulses. Exercise more and spend time in nature. The psychologists say that this will help you feel healthier and happier.
If you are a business leader, take a good, hard look at all of your products. Which ones are sustainable? The market is sometimes slow in placing a fair value on irrational behaviours. We know that we can’t burn all the carbon in the ground but banks still fund carbon exploration. We know that if we keep destroying the forests for mono crop culture we have no future. We need to ascertain which products add to human and global wellbeing and which destroy value. Economic history suggests that this day of price reckoning will come. Are you ready for it?
All of us can take a look at what we consume, how we consume and how we dispose of our waste. For each item of consumption consider whether it brings health and happiness and at what cost? And then consider the environmental and ethical implications of the product.
If just one person reads this and then strives to be a more responsible global citizen then I will have had a good afternoon at work.
If you agree with what I have written please share www.breathe-australia.com
I wrote this article last year. Its words mean so much more to me now. Its about growth through loss. Its about love and letting go
“A couple of weeks ago I was travelling back from North Wales on a packed Virgin train. It was crammed with the usual assortment of hungover post hen/stag do people plus university and army people returning to their digs or barracks. I had spent the weekend at my little brother Dave’s second stag do and hadn’t slept for two days. As I boarded the train I managed to find the last free seat on the whole train. I desperately looked forward to catching up on two hours sleep on the way back to London
As I sat down I said hi to the elderly lady in the seat next to me. That was my first mistake. She was a talker, and by Crewe we were deep in conversation. For the first 20 minutes it was politeness that kept my eyes open. And then things changed . I told her about my life as a yoga teacher. I told her about how when I was 30 I stopped trying to accumulate money and became more interested in experiencing life and learning new things.
She was born on the beautiful island of Anglesey but had moved to the South of England with her childhood sweetheart. They married at 20 and set up a thriving florist business. They were inseparable. When she described him she glowed. At 80 she looked radiant and beautiful. After 25 years of blissful marriage he died suddenly in her arms in their little shop. She has spent the last 30 years asking why.
I had started the conversation by telling her about what yoga teachers do and what positive psychology was all about. As the conversation proceeded I soaked up her wisdom and my tiredness drained away. Her lesson was so beautiful:
– tell the people you love that you love them, never miss an opportunity for cuddles
– move on quickly – life proceeds in one direction – the people who loved you unconditionally would want you to find new love
– build love inside of you, be happy with your company, don’t be too attached to things or people. Work on self love. Feeling good is an attractive trait and brings good people and things into your life
– fear of change is natural but you have attracted love and positive things into your life in the past and you will do the same in the future
– be who you are now – speak your truth, tell people what makes you happy as well as what you fear.
– be true to yourself and be true to other people – 80 or 90 years on this planet and so many people pretend to be something they are not
– enjoy your career – find the thing you love and just do it
After three happy hours on the train I helped her with her bags and we gave each other a big hug. She was a talker. I’m a talker. I also cry easily so we both had happy tears flowing down our cheeks. We connected as two souls in a moment in time. We both joked that we were terrible with names but neither of us cared about that. I felt her goodness, her energy and her wide eyed curiosity in the world. I turned 45 last Saturday and I want to keep being like that.
I don’t know her name but she was beautiful. ”
I wrote that piece back in July 2013 shortly before my brothers wedding. In February 2014 my mum passed away suddenly and unexpectedly . One minute she was playing tennis, baking cakes and getting excited about the arrival of her third grand child and then she was gone
The things that I wrote about in July I have come to experience in my blood and my heart. I feel humbled by the loss of mum. I don’t know where she has gone. My mind plays tricks and I often think that I need to phone my mum. Loss has made me feel vulnerable and often sad but its also done something very profound.
I feel so grateful to be alive. I live in the moment far more often. I don’t feel work stress any more. I prioritise my leisure time.
When mum passed away I was very lucky to be in the company of a very wise friend. Matthew comforted me and told me of his experience when his dad passed away unexpectedly . He said that because mum was no longer around in physical form that her kindness, strength and loving energy would come through me. I often think , what would mum do now? And as I try to follow her loving nature it reminds me of her and makes me feel that she is close. Her sudden passing has left a terrible void in my family but I feel its brought us even closer together. Terrible loss has made me feel more vulnerable than I used to but I also feel stronger, calmer and a happier person. Matthew’s words have come back to me again and again.
I am so grateful of the loving friends and family in my life
David, Michael, Jane, Chris, Kate and Pete I love you very dearly
In 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.
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
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
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?
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
Patanjali’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.“
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.
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.
In 2004 I went to India to learn to become a Yoga teacher. It was a transforming experience. Since then I have been fascinated by the benefits of a regular practice. In 2006 I started investigating the research about Yoga . This led me to take a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology.
In this blog I take four basic ideas from the eight limbs of Yoga and highlight some of the amazing research which supports many aspects of the practice of Yoga.
How you stand and move changes the way your brain works
Try this – hold your arms above your head for just 2 minutes
Do it again after you have read the research and feel empowered. Imagine the positive benefits of an hour or so of Yoga !
The evidence base
In a 2010 study researchers Dana Carny and Amy Cuddy asked people to take on “power poses”. These were various postures reflecting confidence, such as placing their hands on their hips. The research team measured testosterone and cortisol levels (stress hormones) before and after the test. A second group was asked to hold “weak” positions (for example crossing their legs or arms or making themselves as small as possible) . The power or weak postures were hold for just 2 minutes by each group.
Analysis of the results showed an increase in testosterone of 20% for the power group and a 10% decrease in the weak group. The power group showed a 25% reduction in the stress hormone level cortisol whilst the weak group had a 15% increase. The people in the power group also demonstrated behavioural changes. They felt more confident and relaxed and more willing to be adventurous.
In a follow up piece of research one group was asked to hold their hands in the air for just 2 minutes and a second group told to hold weak positions. They were then given mock job interviews which were recorded. The study was obviously a double blind study, which means the people conducting the interviews had no information on what the participants were asked to do before the interviews.
The group holding the power postures were seen as more confident, passionate, enthusiastic, authentic , captivating and comfortable. And more employable.
And all this happened in 2 minutes. Can you imagine the positive effect of practicing physical yoga for an hour has on us?
Why is attention so important – Dharana
Close your eyes and pick your favourite workout activity for 2 minutes – swimming, sun salutations, weight lifting etc
As you visualise this activity focus on the particular muscle group that you are using. If you are imagining swimming focus on just one muscle group – for example your chest
Do it again after reading the research and know that energy and nutrients are flowing to that area!
The evidence base
A study by Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing at Bishop’s University reveals you may be able to make gains in strength and fitness without lifting a finger!
That study measured the strength gains in three different groups of people. The first group did nothing outside their usual routine. The second group was put through two weeks of highly focused strength training for one specific muscle, three times a week. The third group listened to audio CDs that guided them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as the exercising group, three times a week.
The control group, who didn’t do anything, saw no gains in strength. The exercise group, who trained three times a week, saw a 28% gain in strength. No big surprises there. But, the group who did not exercise, but rather thought about exercising experienced nearly the same gains in strength as the exercise group (24%). Yes, you read that right!
The group that visualized exercised got nearly the same benefit, in terms of strength-gains, as the group that actually worked-out.
A Harvard study reported in February 2007 on the impact of your thoughts on calories burned.
In that study, the housekeeping staff in a major hotel were told that what they did on a daily basis qualified as the amount of exercise needed to be fit and healthy. They made no changes in behaviour, just kept on doing their job. Same as always.
Four weeks later, those housekeepers had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, body-fat percentage, waist-hip ratio and BMI. A similar group of housekeepers who had not been led to believe their job qualified as exercise saw none of these changes.
Every thought counts – your thoughts change your body
Spend 5 minutes doing breathing exercises
Now read the research and repeat. Empty your head of thoughts and fill your body with energy
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
your thoughts become your words,
your words become your actions,
your actions become your habits,
your habits become your values,
your values become your destiny.”
The evidence base
Most people know about “fight or flight” and how the body has a physiological reaction to a perceived threat. Whether it’s a physical or a psychological threat the outcomes to the body and mind are similar – we get braced for a fight or energise our muscles to run. So whether it’s a caveman running from a sabre toothed tiger or your boss yelling at you the physical effects are similar in the short term:
• your digestion system shuts down – absorbing nutrients takes energy and the body needs the energy for a fight – hence constipation, IBS etc
• your muscles tense ready for a fight – you are braced, your body becomes brittle and armoured – neck pain, lower back pain
• your heart rate rises to pump blood to the major organs of movement – heart rate increases
• hormones secreted constrict blood vessels to enable blood to be pumped to the major muscle groups quickly – blood pressure rises and your face gets red
• the muscles of fight/flight are prioritised – there is a dramatic reduction in flow to non essential areas – like the skin, kidneys and re productive areas – so you wont look good and your bits and pieces wont work so well
• your pupils dilate in order to pick up more information from our surroundings -you look a bit unhinged
• proteins, carbohydrates and fat are stored in your body and during fight flight are mobilised and dumped into the bloodstream to provide energy for the major muscles of movement. They circulate in the bloodstream as amino acids, glucose and fatty acids and can adhere to the constricted blood vessel walls -increasing your chances of heart disease or stroke.
• amino acids are not great sources of energy so during fight/flight the protein in muscles is dumped into the blood stream and then converted by the liver into glucose – this increases diabetes risk and makes it hard for the mega stressed to grow lean muscle mass
• when the fight flight emergency ends the amino acids, glucose and fatty acids are re absorbed, often in fat store deposits – this requires a huge amount of energy to convert from one form of storage – hence we get tired easily and store fat deposits
As part of your ethical code – be kind
At the start of the 8 limbs of Yoga we are recommended to be kind to all sentient beings and avoid violence of thought, word and action (Ahimsa)
Close your eyes and picture a loved one. As you breathe out imagine breathing loving, kind energy to that person. Spend 10 minutes doing a Metta Bhavana Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM)
Read through the research and repeat the exercise. As you do so you now know you are changing the way your brain is wired. You are wiring it for kindness, love and compassion
The evidence base
Neuroscientific meditation researcher Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin became interested in just that question. He has extensively studied the effect of meditation, including LKM, on the brain. He had a simple question. Would LKM change the brain? To investigate the exact implication of this practice on the brain he invited two groups of subjects into his lab: those who had at least 10,000 hours of LKM under their meditative belt and those who were interested, but new to meditation. He invited both these groups into the fMRI scanner to see how LKM would impact the brain.
The results were clear. The practice of LKM changed several important brain regions: both the insula and the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) lit up as a result of LKM. The insula is the part of the brain responsible for our ability to empathize with others, and to make oneself aware of emotional and physical present-moment experiences. While both groups saw an increase in insula activity, the group with 10,000 hours of experience showed significantly more activation than the other group. This group was experiencing higher levels of compassion than the non-practicing group.
A similar finding appeared for the TPJ. The TPJ, like the insula, is also related to our ability to process empathy and our ability to attune to the emotional states of others. Again, compared to short-term meditators, those with a long-term meditation practice showed significant activation of this brain region.
Other activities where you give unconditional love, such as random acts of kindness, have been shown to change the way our neurons connect to one another and strengthen existing positive pathways. Research from Positive Psychology indicates the greatest factor in developing personal happiness is having strong, loving relationships
Coming soon – Our Positive Psychology course for Yoga teachers www.breathe-australia.com
We are about to run a course of five Positive Psychology workshops. These weekly sessions will be one hour long and will focus on the techniques that have been demonstrated by research to have a positive impact on our wellbeing levels. In week 1 we look at some of the barriers to happiness and how we can overcome them. Each week we introduce a different evidenced based technique from Positive Psychology. We then practice it within the group and at home with friends and family
Because we have a strong community ethos at Breathe and because we believe the knowledge emerging from this field should be widely available we are making these workshops low cost. The UK course, run by Madeleine, is £15 a week (£75 for the 5 week course) and $30 for the Australian course run by me ($150 for the 5 week course)
Madeleine and myself met in 2007 on the first Masters Degree in Positive Psychology outside of the US. We were early adopters and have a healthy respect and a healthy skepticism about this new science and what it can do for human flourishing. Course details:
2 GROUPS ON MONDAYS in London : 12.30-13.30PM OR 4-5PM
7th, 14th, 21st,28th, JULY and 18th August,
MIN 2 PEOPLE, MAX 5 PER GROUP.
To book the UK course . For more information about the UK or Australian course contact me
Read more about positive psychology
Humans tend to be optimistic about the future. When asked how satisfied we are with our lives the response is usually about 7 out of 10. When asked how satisfied we think we will be in the future most people tend to say they will be more satisfied.
Confusingly however, research suggests that we also have a tendency to focus on our deficits rather than our strengths, our failings rather than our successes and what we crave for rather than what we have. On the one hand we say we are satisfied whilst at the same time we feel restless and incomplete.
The power of restlessness can be a motivating energy that drives us forward and helps us to achieve great success in life. It moves us on, thrusting and conquering. It can be a force for great good. For example when scientists and philanthropists apply their energy, passion and knowledge to overcoming the challenges we face. It can also be the most destructive force on the planet destroying individual and global wellbeing.
Overcoming the barriers to happiness
So let’s consider the barriers to happiness and why we may feel this underlying restlessness:
The hedonic treadmill – When we enjoy a new material possession, for example a car or a house, our minds quickly adjust to the heightened experience. Research suggest that at first when we enjoy a new thing we feel “happier” but within no time at all we are back to where we started, restless and seeking the next thing to consume
We are more alert to danger and our defects rather than our opportunities and strengths – From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense. In the 19th century life expectancy in the UK was 35. Prior to the 20th century it was often a violent and dangerous world and we needed to be on our toes. As Steven Pinker noted in his book, “A history of violence” , despite all its carnage the 20th century was statistically the least violent century there has been and the trend is continuing to improve in the 21st century. There are many challenges facing us now but in general we’ve never had it so good.
However brains change slowly and training the mind to be receptive to the positive as much as to negative influences requires tenacity and heightened awareness. There are many wonderful exercises explored in Positive Psychology research which remind us to cherish what we have and remind us to count our blessings. When we are aware of our evolutionary bias, which tends to focus our minds on problems, we can re train our minds to focus on our strengths and those of colleagues and friends. A positive mental outlook goes hand in hand with positive emotions and a healthy body. With positive emotions and a healthy body we are better equipped to overcome loss and suffering which inevitably will come into all our lives at some point
Our ancestors – Studies indicate that when we respond to a survey about how happy we are, the answer that we give is likely to be highly pre determined by heritable factors. Whether you are a 5 or a 9 out of 10 is determined by three main key factors:
- your ancestors,
- the circumstances in your life (for example how much money you make) and lastly
- the choices that you have made that day to influence your mood state.
50% of the variance between your answer and the average for the population is determined by heritable factors. In psychology that’s a huge percentage which suggests that the view that we have of our own happiness and how happy we think we will be in the future is fairly well determined at birth. And as a reminder of why this self evaluation of happiness is important – the more satisfied people say they are with their lives the longer they are likely to live and the healthier they are likely to be.
On the flip side studies indicate that just 10% of our self reported happiness levels are down to the circumstances in our life (for example how much money we earn) and a further 40% is down to the choices we make on a daily basis. That’s a great positive message. With this knowledge we can remind ourselves each day that although we have a tendency to have a certain level of happiness which is influenced by our ancestry, it is not fixed. We have the power to re-write a new future for ourselves and our children.
The key to this may be to raise awareness about the tools and tendencies that we are born with that can either propel us towards success or destruction. When we are able to observe these tendencies in ourselves, our parents and our grandparents it makes it easier to create new positive habits and rituals. This is similar to the karmic tendencies that Hindus believe we inherit from past lives. They also note importantly each day we are given the opportunity to start again, begin afresh and rewrite the present and the future. They call this Aagami karma – the karma that you are creating at this moment with your thoughts, emotions and actions.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think to enjoy, to love”
This was written by him nearly 2,000 years ago. There is nothing new in the world but we have to keep reminding ourselves of what is important
To learn more about and make a booking for the UK or Australian course
We all know how irritating and intrusive smart phones can be and how often we lecture our kids about engaging positively in conversations. Many of us recall how we used to sit around the dinner table and talk about the day with friends and family. As our relationship with technology develops, our level and quality of attention seems to be diminishing. Many of us find it hard to focus on a report at work, read a book or be mindful of the feelings of our nearest and dearest.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggest having a constant low level of partial attention has an adverse affect on our wellbeing levels. It’s apparent to most people that constantly checking Facebook statuses takes us away from having real life experiences and forces us to compare our lives with those of our friends. The vast majority of posts on Facebook report the positive experiences people enjoy, often containing an element of bragging. When people constantly compare statuses it forces them to compare own lives with those of their friends. Surrounded by this self-reported positivity some people conclude their own lives are less adequate than their peers.
Apart from social media, another great stressor is the constant flow of work emails. These constant notifications take our attention from living a healthy balanced home life and make us focus around the clock on work problems.
Switch it off and connect
In order to encourage people to spend a little more time living in the present we thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to disconnect from TV, smartphones, tablets and laptops for 30 minutes a day for 28 days.
These are the simple ground rules for the switch off:
- not during work time except during a lunch break
- not whilst driving to and from work
You can do anything else you like – play with your children, read a novel, meditate, eat with friends, practice yoga, take a walk, eat dinner… anything really, so long as it’s done with your full attention.
Breathe Australia and Breathe London are looking for organisations in Australia and the UK to encourage their employees to sign up. Initially we are inviting those in Queensland and Central London to take part but hope to expand the scheme throughout Australia and the UK
We propose to go into each company and give a quick talk on what happens to your brain when you have continuous partial attention. We briefly explore how having our attention switched on to so many different sources rewires the brain and makes it difficult to focus on the things that bring us meaning and happiness. We then teach simple techniques to help focus attention.
We also give those who sign up a reflective journal to note down what they do with their thirty minutes and record how it makes them feel.
At the start of the 28 days we ask participants to rate how satisfied they are with their lives and make a note in their journal. At the end of 28 days we get them to rate their satisfaction again and record how they felt about the process. We also ask them to obtain feedback from their partners or a close friend on what they observed during the process.
Why spend more time in the present?
Research suggests that people who spend more time living in the present and less time worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past, are happier than those who let their attention drift from the here and now.
In fact the happiest people seem to be able to shift their attention seamlessly between living in the present, reminiscing positively about the past and having constructive and optimistic thoughts about the future. This can be described as a Balanced Time Perspective (Boniwell and Zimbardo 2004) Read more about the research on time
Our 28 day course encourages people to stay present and connect in a meaningful way to the people and things they love. Spending too much time online makes us focus on other peoples’ experiences (Facebook) or other people’s problems (work emails).
The research suggests that training our minds to be more present more often increases the level of positive emotions we experience and has a long term positive impact on how satisfied we are with our lives (Fredrickson 2008) Read more about Fredrickson’s study
Why ask people about life satisfaction?
Asking people how satisfied they are with their lives is one of the most commonly used tools to assess wellbeing and has been used in many worldwide studies on wellbeing, creativity and productivity at work
We are beginning to make a clear connection between productivity in the workplace and happiness. Happier employees are more productive than their colleagues, and are more mindful of interpersonal relationships (Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014) Read more about happiness and flourishing workplaces and Happiness at work.
By asking participants to reflect on their wellbeing levels and record their experience in a journal it increases the likelihood that the 28 day attention training will have long lasting benefits. They will practice something new, reflect on the change and document the results. This embeds learning.
What the organisation gets from this training
- A training attention workshop for their staff
- Employees with an improved ability to focus their attention
- Happier and more engaged staff
Reaching out to the community
In Australia we are charging an introductory rate of $50 for each person signing up. Fifty percent of this will be donated to charity. We are seeking four Australian charities to buddy up with.
In the UK this is £30 per person and once again we are looking for four charities to connect with.
The next step
We’re looking for organisations, initially in Queensland and Central London, who want to advertise the scheme to their staff.
For more details contact me at Breathe Australia (for both UK and Australian enquiries).
About Breathe Australia and Breathe London
I set up Breathe in 2003 with Tom Te Whaiti. After a Corporate Finance career, in Sydney with KPMG, I left for India and studied to be a Yoga teacher. In 2007 my study of wellbeing led me to enrol in the first Masters Degree course in Positive Psychology in Europe. Since I left Australia I created a thriving wellbeing business in the UK with a team of twenty mind and body therapists. Back in the UK my personal wellbeing work has expanded to include corporate wellbeing and over the last ten years I have presented on Positive Psychology, Emotional Intelligence and Meditation to staff at the House of Commons, Amerada Hess and back at KPMG. The UK business is Breathe London www.breathe-london.com
My Masters degree dissertation was “Introducing Attention Techniques at Work”
We have now set up a Positive Psychology business in Townsville and Sydney and are hoping to make a positive impact in business, education and the wider community here, and throughout Australia. For more information check out www.breathe-australia.com
Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004; Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005
Fredrickson, B., Cohn, M., Coffey, K. A, Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1045–1062.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Oswald, Proto, Sgroi 2014
More about continuous partial attention https://breathenews.wordpress.com/positive-psychology-articles/neural-plasticity/