Breathing Space Blog (UF Mindfulness Team)

Blog UF Mind #16:

Searching for healing amidst a global pandemic.

Although there is a constant stream of news concerning the problems and hardships brought about by the Coronavirus, I have also noticed a considerable amount of positive content being shared within my social network. I am grateful for everyone who has given their time and energy towards spreading advice, hope and encouragement in the face of chaos. My intention for this essay is to add to the latter form of communication without trivializing the seriousness of the situation at hand.

Healing

It may seem counterintuitive to look at the social distancing, mass disruption, and fear ensuing from a global pandemic as an opportunity for healing and growth. Nevertheless, with change comes opportunity, and we should try to make the most of the new circumstances forced upon us by the virus. Quarantines and lockdowns have increased the amount of time we have at home, so why not spend it enjoying the little things? Let’s read, cook, garden, listen to music, watch films, make art, play games, and connect on a deeper level with those we share our space with.
Let’s dedicate our newfound alone time to giving ourselves the care and attention we usually reserve for others. Let’s rest and heal, pray and meditate, each in our own way; and find stillness, so that when this all blows over, we may come out of isolation ready to re-connect, and return to the world with rejuvenated energy.
The disruption caused by this virus provides our planet an opportunity for healing as well. The lockdowns simultaneously happening throughout the world have resulted in less cars and airplanes in use, and therefore less pollution. With the impending climate change crisis, the reduction in carbon emissions may help our planet get back into shape, thereby also helping the survival of its inhabitants.

Contemplation

The change to our regular routines is an opportunity to reflect upon our individual roles within society during times of crisis. We must ask ourselves what we can do to help. Ultimately, we all bear the same fundamental responsibility: to reduce the spread and minimize the damage. By following guidelines, we can not only prevent ourselves from getting sick, but can save others from suffering the same fate or worse. However, implementing such preventative measures will only be thoroughly effective if everyone plays their part. By contemplating the interconnected nature of our existence, we can come to understand how our contributions as individuals are a vital piece of the collective action needed to combat our shared predicament.
We may also choose to contemplate our blessings instead of our problems. If we have a roof over our heads, food on our table and are in good health, there is perhaps no real need to panic. Let’s not forget to practice gratitude, as it will help us stay grounded in these uncertain times.

Creativity

We can’t control our circumstances; however, we can control how we react to them. For example, when it comes to the disruption of our professional lives, such novel circumstances are an opportunity to practice creative problem solving. If we can no longer go to the office, we may learn to work remotely, and take advantage of the full range of possibilities granted by the internet. Those of us who can no longer work due to the disruption may use this time to learn a new skill or develop a new hobby. Irrespective of what exactly it is we choose to do, let’s act with the intention to create and cultivate new habits.
On a side not, for those of us who will be spending more times in front of our screens, let’s remember to use social media and our electronic devices consciously, and take regular breaks. Let’s also be mindful of our privilege, as not everyone has internet access at home.

Compassion

Throughout history, humans have achieved incredible feats through the power of cooperation, and in this era where we are connected more than ever before, we can once again overcome the challenges we face by acting in each other’s best interests. Let’s be mindful of those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic, such as the sick, the elderly and those who have lost their source of income, and take this opportunity to support them in whatever way we can. Let’s practice loving-kindness, check in with one another and share our resources, as the impact of compassion and generosity are oftentimes priceless.

We are currently facing a significant test we must overcome on both an individual and collective level. We are all affected and suffer in our own way. However, how we choose to relate to this crisis will determine whether we build resilience and promote healing or fall prey to panic and despair. Let’s treat this global pandemic as an opportunity to practice contemplation, mindfulness, creativity, gratitude and compassion; so that we may heal and grow during perhaps one of the most challenging periods of our lives.

Henok Pankhurst,
Mindfulness Coordinator at UF Mindfulness,
BSc in Psychology, University of Florida

Blog UF Mind #15: Inner Peace

Peace Poem By Sabine Grunwald

Peace is tranquility. Peace is silence, compassion, kindness, friendship, and love. Peace is freedom from disturbance, from trauma, from tragedy.

Peace is threatened by loud and visible forces – bullying, trolling, guns, hateful and angry voices, war, terrorism, a noisy world of tweets.

Our own minds are chatter boxes that reflect the chatter in media and images blinking and beeping for our attention.

Today, peace faces new danger: The climate and environmental crisis, which threatens our security, our livelihood and our lives, specifically the poor and marginalized in our communities.

Peace is also threatened by these quiet and invisible forces that lurk in the shadow – like climate change, words unspoken and withhold, indifference, unkindness, disconnected from the LOVE that we long.

Even being quiet is seen as a threat. The storyline goes “I don’t have time”, “I cannot meditate”, “I cannot be still” or “I am not good enough”.

Our longing for peacefulness is not silence that is lonely and inept.

Peacefulness is the silence filled with DEEP LOVE, an inner knowing, wisdom, coming home, feeling at home, and being at home – even in the face of bullying and trolling storms.

Peace from that inner place is indestructible despite loud and disturbing voices that may stress us.

INNER PEACE gives us the strength to speak up against gender, racial, social, and economic inequality and oppression; speak up when faced with lie after lie.

Inner peace is strong like a diamond that has the strength to cut through othering – that “YOU and I are different from each other; this inner strength cuts through anxiousness, fears, and anger.

In surrender to inner peace & listening to our heart song we free ourselves and find grace, LOVE; recognizing that LOVE is the universe.

Let us come together and unify in the quest for inner peace to change this roaring and bursting world.

Let us move toward that inner peace and meditate.

Blog UF Mind #14: Othering

By Sabine Grunwald

“I am not in space and in time, nor do I think space and time; rather, I am of space and of time” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2012, p. 141).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote this in his book Phenomenology of Perception, which was first published in 1945, the year WW II ended. What touched me in these words is that some people in contemporary America do not seem to live in the same space and time. Like parallel universes that subdivide space and time dimensions in which people do not listen, dialogue, talk or connect and touch in any way. It’s a cultural dichotomy that undergirds what is communicated or tweeted. This othering is distancing and confrontational where “I” and “You” are perceived as other, not my tribe, not of the same roots, and with a total different vision for how American life should look like. In the should there is a righteous tone. It is painful to see these different political, racial, gender, sexual, and geographic identities roar loud. Many people think they are more right or better than others, and one’s thoughts and beliefs are the superior ones. Walls of thoughts that do not easily cross space and time domains.

But below these outside identities lingers something precious beneath that is pre-all of those identities. Something inherent in all of us that is “okay” shimmering through and not induced by culture, tribalistic political views or moral beliefs. Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams speaks to this in a radical open voice:

“There’s nothing wrong with any of us. And there’s nothing wrong with any of who we are or who we were born as and what skin and what gender what parts we have. That’s why I want to keep pointing out that there’s a construct happening. Just like ego is a construct. It’s something that’s out there. And then we have all of these challenges and heaps of suffering that are induced by how we relate to that ego, or that socially induced identity―that projection of ourselves” (Williams, Lama Owens, & Syedullah, 2016, p. 130).

The problem is not Whiteness vs. Blackness, not Rich vs. Poor, not Democrat vs. Republican, not urban vs. rural, not woman vs. man, not loving voice vs. angry voice, not heterosexual vs. queer. The problem is the way in which we relate to those identities. We may put up a rigid stone wall separating identities or let identities dissolve like water dissolves into porous sand. To see beneath polarized oppositions means to let go of the constructed overlay of “Look I am better and other than you”.

Meditation practices bring down the inward and outward walls we create. Instead we gradually tap into complete openness in our awareness. More awake and fully alive to our experiences. More accepting toward others because we know that in our inner core we are all the same. Painful crap is turned upside down and suddenly looks okay. This inherent something that is at one’s core of being unleashes to see with fresh eyes. This is when one is “I am of space and of time”.

 

References

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012). Phenomenology of perception. (D. A. Landes, Trans.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Williams, R. A. K., Lama Owens, & Syedullah, J. (2016). Radical dharma – Talking race, love, and liberation. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Blog UF Mind #13: Love is a Choice

By Sabine Grunwald

Love is like happiness – we invite genuine love into our lives. Sometimes we hold onto and want to possess love. This usually does not end well. Love may slip, we may fall out of love with somebody, and crash down to the reality of life. Or worse, we may judge and blame ourselves depriving us of the love that we so long for. What is true love?

Love is one of these mysteries. It nurtures and enriches our lives. I believe that most of us would chose love over hate. Though our nation body of American culture seems somewhat engulfed by hate, anger, and aggression rather than love. Elie Wiesel, American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1986) and Holocaust survivor who was deeply humiliated in Hitler’s death camps and barely survived said “The opposite of love is not hate – it’s indifference”. This invites us to engage, actively in seeking love, and to choose love over an indifferent and possibly unfulfilling live that is full of hate, anger, or even worse.

The famous psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck (Peck, 1998;  Peck, 2003) marveled “love is the will to extend oneself to nurture one’s self or somebody else’s self for the purpose of spiritual growth.” This is an invitation to turn towards ourselves and others. Every time we mindfully turn toward our spouse, partner, child, student, teacher, client, a stranger, a sick person, and an enemy that we may perceive as evil, despicable or hateful holds the potential of bringing forth love. Turning toward somebody who is other – different in terms of race, religion, beliefs, political affiliation, views, it comes in many flavors – is a loving act. Can we see beneath the hateful speech and angry demeanor of somebody or the indifference and passivity? There is goodness and a warm heart in every person. Paradoxically, our experience of the sameness of being human brings us closer to love.

Chapman (2014) says that love entails five languages:

Love language #1: Words of affirmation. Words that emphasize the pleasant, joyful, and beautiful aspects of life. It is easy to speak and hear words of affirmation we are intimate with, somebody we trust dearly, and who is open. Can you speak lovingly to a co-worker, parent, stranger or your worst enemy?

Love language #2: Gifts. A gift coming from the heart is something that says “I was thinking about you. I wanted you to have this, I love you.”

Love language #3: Acts of service. In our self-centered society the idea of service may seem anachronistic, but the life of service to others has always been recognized as a life worthy of emulation. Are you a public servant, a servant in the community, or loved ones? A service that comes from the heart, not out of responsibility or expectation by others.

Love language #4: Quality time. We may be in the presence of people all day long, but we do not feel connected. Quality time means time of genuine togetherness, undivided attention, mindful listening, a shared space where both are fully present.

Love language #5: Physical touch. When we were babies, before we could even crawl, we thrived on love. Babies who are held, hugged, touched tenderly develop a healthier emotional life than those are left for long periods of time without physical contact. In modern society we are often afraid to be touched and create distance because it could be misinterpreted. In Western culture we are afraid to touch due to our socio-cultural conditioning. So we sit back in loneliness and physical isolation. No hugs, no touch, perhaps a text message or tweet instead. The body is made for touching to bring forth love. Creating intimate spaces with partners and loved ones to touch is an expression of love. A hug is love.

We all make choices every moment to love or not to love. What is your choice?

 

References:

Chapman, G. (2014). The 5 love languages. Chicago, IL: Northfield Publ.

Peck, M. S. (2003). The road less traveled, timeless edition: A new psychology of love, traditional values and spiritual growth. New York, NY: Touchstone Publ.

Peck, M.S. (1998). People of the lie – the hope for healing human evil. New York, NY: Touchstone Publ.

 

Blog UF Mind #12: Healthy Relating to the News and Media

trickster

 

By Sabine Grunwald

Conflicted Emotions

Another of those tweets, in the news, on TV, Facebook, a text message from my friend, cycling through the Internet and social media and thereby amplified thousands of times. The 140-character tweet is repeated in the media so many times, I cannot help but to recognize it. The message is disrupting, calls for change, full of blame and sounds aggressive. I decide to put it aside, and yet it is still present. I want to forget about it, yet it keeps nagging below the surface. I feel uneasy, frustrated, disturbed, overloaded, dull, angry, charmed, indifferent, tricked, attracted. I am confused. What is really going on?

News and More News

Feelings and emotions are part of our experiences, e.g. when reading a tweet or post. And sometimes emotions can be confusing, overwhelming and not well understood. We simply respond and act without clarity of “what is really going on”. Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and founder of cognitive neuroscience, estimated that as much as 98 percent or more of all brain activity is completely unconscious (Gazzaniga, 2009). These unconscious activities, such as digesting food, the heart beating, and processing of sensory input, are just hidden from our awareness. We would be emotionally overwhelmed if being aware of all those things going on in our body and mind every minute and second of our life. Making things conscious – a feeling, thought, perception, or emotion help us to understand “what it going on” by retrieving them from the unconscious into our consciousness. It makes us feel alive. It also helps us to gain meaning and navigate the waters at school, work place, in communities and personal life. Many things in our lives, let it be politics, the constant bombardment with news and messages via social media are sometimes in a “gray zone”, i.e., inbetween the conscious and unconscious. We cannot fact-check every incoming news and information. Internet bots generate a substantial amount of posts, spam and web material.  For example, nearly 20 percent of all recent U.S. election-related tweets came from an army of influential robots, called internet bots according to a MIT Technology Review (Byrnes, 2016). Fake news are rampaging through the Internet. Our emails are full of spam. How can we filter out the gems from the garbage? How can we trust what we read and make sense out of it? Although we can make choices of seeking out reliable and trustworthy news resources that provide balanced reporting from different vantage points (…. rare these days), we are often less cognizant about the massive amount of information bombarding us every day. This may show up in form of different responses: Freeze, flight, or fight. You may feel helpless and freeze-up because the news is simply too overwhelming (freeze). This emotional paralysis locks you in. Or you may run away from reading/listening/watching news and social media because you think they are hopelessly wrong anyway (flight). This dissociation from society and culture leaves you in your own narrow cocoon, though you can never fully escape from the world that also impacts you in one way or another. Or you may intensify your engagement and binge-eat the news like your life depends on it because you are angry and ready for a fight.  You want to get to the truth of the matter by overconsumption of social media, news, and everything that is out there. This endless run for more is exhausting and leaves you devastated because your needs to “know it all” are really never fulfilled. How can we find a more nuanced, balanced, mindful and healthy way to relate to news that shape society and our culture?

 

Consciousness and Unconsciousness

Without becoming aware of our responses (freeze, flight, or fight) we are like a cork in the ocean, tumbling or stuck in habitual pattern. We first have to understand what is hidden from our awareness in our unconscious. The psychologist C.G. Jung distinguished between the consciousness, of which its most central feature is the ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious which houses archetypal images (Stein, 2004). Our unconscious is the portion of the psyche lying outside of conscious awareness. The content of the personal unconscious is made up of repressed memories and materials, such as thoughts, images and emotions that have been repressed because it is too disturbing to us or has never been conscious. Kaparo (2012),  Weiss et al. (2015) and other researchers have pointed out that our soma holds these unconscious patterns in form of somatic intelligence (“the bodies wisdom”). Our body senses and retains more than we consciously are aware of. The good news is that we can tap into our personal unconsciousness through somatic practices, mindfulness with its two prongs – attention and awareness – as well as deep reflection and contemplation. Through these practices we may also become more aware of the different archetypes in the collective unconscious that are at play controlling our responses (freeze, flight, or fight). For example, we may like an aggressive post blaming others because deep down it speaks to us somehow. Or we may be drawn to posts expressing loving-kindness and coming together in community because we feel hurt inside and seek healing.

Archetypes

Jung asserted that archetypes are housed in the collective unconscious (Stein, 2004). He elaborates that an archetype is a collectively inherited unconscious image that is universally present in individual psyches in Jungian psychology (Stein, 2004). The archetypal elements of the psyche are experienced in everyday life. These archetypes are emotionally charged memory images that form structures residing in our unconscious. They have the ability to erupt suddenly and spontaneously into consciousness and to take possession of the ego’s functions, i.e., keep a firm hold on our psyche. These archetypal images are believed to be innate and primitive. In short, an archetype is an innate potential pattern of imagination, thought, or behavior that can be found among human being in all times, places and cultures (Stein, 2004).

Is there a Trickster among Us? Is there a Trickster in Us?

It was suggested that the archetypes of the hero within, such as the orphan, the wanderer (seeker), the warrior, the altruist, the innocent and the magician are actively present throughout our lives journey (Pearson, 2015). The trickster archetype (Jung, 2010) has manifested in different cultures in mythology, folklore, modern popular culture, fiction, in historic and contemporary time, politics, economics, schools, workplaces, and even right next door in our neighborhoods. The trickster among the archetype is one of the most self-unaware and mindless characters.

You may recognize some of these trickster characters. For example, Loki the trickster, a shape-shifting, troublesome giant in Norse Scandinavian mythology. The alchemical figure of Mercury, a Roman god patron seeking financial gain through trickery as a thief and also known for guiding souls to the underworld. Bart Simpson or Bugs Bunny, in the animated TV series. The Joker, a fictional supervillain, a goofy prankster with dark roots, in short the antidote to the fictional superhero Batman. Q a member of the Q continuum with dark, malicious superpowers in the Star Trek Enterprise series. Tricksters are also found in politics or among public figures.

Who is this Trickster?

Jung (2010) provided a comprehensive account of the characteristics of the trickster archetype. He is a trick-playing shape-shifter, opportunistic, fundamentally ambiguous and anomalous, a deceiver who fools and cheats. He plays pranks, malicious tricks, disrupts and calls for change, and many fall victims to his tactics. His behavior is unpredictable, with senseless orgies of destruction due to an aggrandizing ego of playing the savior of all. As Jung (1968) pointed out this transformation of the meaningless into the conjectured meaningful reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the “saint” promising to take suffering away and creating a better life for all by healing their wounds, which often does not materialize. The trickster’s archetypal psychic structure is characterized by malicious intent of archaic, raw, primitive, childish, and undifferentiated consciousness. His compulsive behavior is grotesque and anti-mainstream culture.

The most alarming characteristic is the trickster’s vast unconsciousness. He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, his hands fight each other, and his own words are contradictory (Jung, 1968). Although he is not really evil, he does the most atrocious things from sheer unconsciousness and unrelatedness to the world and other people (Jung, 1968). His extraordinary clumsiness, push to cross boundaries and profound anamnesis (remembering of things) evokes amusement, exhibits considerable powers of fascination, possession and charming enchantment among people. Because the trickster lacks capacity to introspect and listen to other people he mindlessly represses resulting in a big shadow residing in his unconscious. These “bottled-up” psychic energies that are split-off from his consciousness and combined with low level of morality makes others often pay for his inefficiency (Jung, 1968). Jung pointed out that the trickster is a collective shadow figure, a summation of all the inferior traits of character in individuals.

Importantly, Jung (1968) reminds us that outwardly we may appear civilized wearing a suit and tie or beautiful dress, yet inwardly the primitive trickster archetype lingers in all of us. To counter the awakening of the trickster our best approach is to bring as much from the unconscious into consciousness and lead an aware and awake life. Mindful living and being present helps to keep our tricksters in check.

A mindful approach to tweets and other things in our lives

I read this tweet today. I take it in and be present to it with my whole body, mind (thoughts, images, ideas, concepts), and note my emotions that arise. In a nutshell, I use attention and awareness to mindfully perceive the whole – the letters of the tweet with my senses, words and language, my interpretation based on my knowledge and previous experiences stored in memory in my brain and body, sensations in my body, emotions that provide clues of my experience in this moment, and decision to act (e.g., to dump the tweet, re-tweet it, reflect on its meaning asking it could be fake news, get more facts from other sources, or do nothing). Mindfulness and deep reflection empower and help in many ways. They enhance my awareness to select the best possible action in a given moment. For example, I may bring into awareness that a trickster or other archetype is at play which I recognize, and thus, avoid being in the grip of it or deluded by it. I may also look at my patterns of relating to the news and social media by counting the hours I spend on news consumption and postings, what type of news interest me, and observe the emotions that arise by reading/listening/watching news. I may ask how much do I trust news from a single source (one person making a claim) vs. topical news from many diverse sources (e.g., science journal, respected newspaper, statistics from a non-profit organization, multiple other organizations, FB post, non-stakeholder group, etc.). Trust and confidence arise through reliability, instead of opportunistic forth-and-back shapeshifting behavior.

Note that emotions and feelings are often complex and co-arise. To explore beneath the obvious emotions (e.g., frustration) and discover deeper feelings of anger or feeling not seen and hurt due to lack in self-worth. It’s like holding up a mirror and looking wholeheartedly at “Me” and how I relate to news and media. Important is to be open to whatever we may find, because otherwise we may push “it” right back into our unconscious keeping our psyche energetically in its grip.

Gazzaniga (1995) pointed out that the left hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere for language, speech, and problem solving capacities crucial for intelligent behavior. In contrast, the right hemisphere is specialized in facial recognition, attentional monitoring, and other mental traits, and reacts more directly and simply to perceptual information. The right hemisphere has no interpretative mechanism, whereas the left hemisphere has capacity for making inferences and interpretations. What binds the right and left hemispheres together is the corpus callosum which allows us to integrate across right and left brain structures (Gazzaniga, 1995). This integration provides us a balanced way of being. Mindfulness, paying attention and raising awareness what is happening within us and around us – including tweets, posts, news, the media – can teach us much about who we really are. The more often we are mindful, reflect, and contemplate we strengthen those neurons that fire together. New neurons are produced in the adult human brain, and our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible (Gazzaniga et al., 2009).

 

References

Byrnes N. (2016). “How the bot-y politic influenced this election”. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602817/how-the-bot-y-politic-influenced-this-election/

Gazzaniga, M., Ivry, R. B., Mangun, G. R., & Steven, M. S. (2009). Cognitive neuroscience: The biology of the mind (3rd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1995). Principles of human brain organization derived from split-brain studies. Neuron, 14(2), 217–228. doi.org/10.1016/0896-6273(95)90280-5

Jung, C. G. (1968). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Princeton Univ. Press.

Jung, C. G. (2010). Four archetypes – Mother, rebirth, spirit, trickster. (R. F. C. Hull, Translator). New York, NY: Princeton Univ. Press.

Kaparo, R.F. (2012). Awakening somatic intelligence: the art and practice of embodied mindfulness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Pearson, C. S. (2015). The hero within: Six archetypes we live by (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins Publ.

Stein, M. (2004). Jung’s map of the soul (7th edition). Peru, IL: Open Court Publ.

Weiss, H., Johanson, G., & Monda, L. (Eds.). (2015). Hakomi mindfulness-centered somatic psychotherapy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

 

 

 

Blog UF Mind #11: Crossroads

crossroad

By Sabine Grunwald

Crossroads

Have you ever been at a crossroad and you did not know if it would be better to go right, left, or simply stay put? In these “crossroad” moments I feel torn inside, confused, undecided and yet I feel compelled into action, while the next moment I am frozen. Nothing seems to make sense. Really big life decisions can keep us occupied for weeks, months or longer. I could make a list of the pros and cons and use all my brain power and logically analyze the crossroad situation which is a critical juncture that affects my own and other’s lives. Though somehow that seems half-hearted and my self is not really fully in it. These heartaches can be daunting. We are catapulted out from our heart space that feels like falling into pieces. We sense that our whole self is a pitiful joke and “if this happens..…” or “if that happens……” runs the show. In these moments every cell in my body seems to be on high alert because so much is at stake.

…. and then I pause. I am mindfully resting in the present moment. Ahhhh, I recognize that I am caught up in a habitual cycle of churning thoughts to make THIS important decision in my life. Suddenly my eyes see with a freshness that is crystal clear like a lake in the mountains. I am now able to sense more deeply where the directions of the crossroad would lead me. It is like a fog has lifted that kept me in a cloud of deluded thoughts. I breathe and let go of this urge to think things through. This has been an old habit I am so used to in which my whole being is just thought – one single, big thought – while my body and heart have drifted off into lalalalalala land.  I breathe deeper now. I listen to my inbreath and outbreath. I now rest in the silence. I am in the gap, the crack that connects me with something deeper. The source. A non-verbal knowing of “what is this crossroad” and “who I am deep down” and “who I become” is engulfing my whole being. I deeply understand without thought nor speech the deeper purpose. I own my path. Love is in every cell and pore of my body. I let arise what needs to come forth, like a spring bubbling up pure, blue water. Now I know which one is “the right” turn at the crossroad. My mind is clear. I walk. I am in a fully embodied state in which my heart speaks the same rhythmic voice as my mind, and it seems natural that my feet move my body in “the right” direction. I feel elated. This path is my passion. There is a certainty that emanates from every step I take on the road.

My crossroad story is one example in which mindfulness and presencing helped me to see with clarity, connect and listen to my inner self, find purpose, and act wisely. I was able to be authentic facing the juncture of a crossroad . We all face crossroads.

Presencing

Otto Scharmer described presencing, a key in the Theory U model, as an authentic qualia of self, i.e., “waking up to who we really are by linking with and acting from our highest and future Self – and by using the Self as a vehicle for bringing forth new worlds.” (Scharmer, 2009). This authentic presence is a heart-felt quality of being – the magic moments where boundaries fall away. Besides the heart, soma and feelings likewise contribute to an embodied sense of authenticity when we are presencing (Senge et al., 2008).

There are distinct stages according to Theory U: (0) Downloading past patterns – consciously seeing our habitual patterns, (1) Suspending – seeing with fresh eyes, (2) Redirecting – sensing, observing “what is”, (3) Letting go – of preconceived ideas, thinking and habits, (4) Presencing – connecting to the source; asking “who is my higher Self?” and “what is my purpose?”, (5) Letting come – be open to whatever needs to arise, (6) Enacting – crystallizing vision and intention, (7) Embodying –  prototyping the new by linking head, heart and body, and finally performing by operating from the whole (Scharmer, 2009).

The inner work of redirecting and seeing the whole and making present requires suspending (silence), similar to meditation practice that cultivates to quiet the mind (Senge et al., 2008). Meditation practices bring a certain kind of open, moment-to-moment, nonjudgemental awareness of what you are attending to (e.g., breath) which increases the awareness whatever we focus on (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).

 

References

Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever you go there you are – Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Scharmer, C.O. 2009. Theory U – Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publ.

Senge, P.M., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J., and Flowers, B.S. 2008. Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. New York, NY: Crown Business Publ.

 

More on presencing

Presencing Institute: https://www.presencing.com/

Otto Scharmer: http://www.ottoscharmer.com/

Peter Senge: http://mitsloan.mit.edu/faculty-and-research/faculty-directory/detail/?id=41415

 

Blog UF Mind #10: Peaceful Mind, Peaceful World

love-peace-kindness

By Sabine Grunwald

Another shooting, terror right in my face, a toy lying on the street, a blast of a bomb, blood, shock, angst, fear, people in despair. Global news travel fast – Orlando, Baton Rouge, Nice, Munich, it goes on. It seems like random acts of heinous cruelty. But they are not random. They happen at places people go and have fun, celebrate and enjoy ordinary pleasures of life. I feel the suffering of those who lost loved ones or were injured. I hear the cries for help from those in pain. Compassion is flooding through my body. I feel a sudden release of the heaviness that was draped over my body. Then my mind asks ‘why’ is terror happening to peaceful people? I instinctively turn my head, am I safe where I am? Will I be safe tomorrow?  Do I know who the person standing next to me in line really is – a friend, a loved one, an ordinary stranger, killer or psychopath? I am flooded with a rainbow of feelings – helplessness, anxiety, compassion, anger, love, indifference, and more. We all have it in us to be peaceful but sometimes peace is clouded and covered by frustration, fear, anger or anxiety that close our hearts, we blame others or worse.

I turn to the cushion and start meditating. My breath slows down, I breathe into the lower belly and my mind settles. Then I practice tonglen, a loving-kindness meditation. This is a practice of giving and taking (or sending and receiving). I visualize taking in the suffering of myself and of others on the in-breath. Then on the out-breath I give/send out compassion, kindness and well-being starting with myself, then an intimate loved one, a neutral person, a person suffering, and a person who brought harm to others. I breathe in, I breathe out. I breathe in, I breathe out. My mind is peaceful in this moment. There is loving-kindness pouring out of my heart. This open heart is available anytime, anyplace. After the meditation I see on the Insight Timer app on my phone that while I was meditating over 5,500 people were practicing mindfulness as well. And likely hundreds of thousands others on this globe were having a mindful and peaceful moment as well. I smile and recognize that there is so much peace, kindness and goodness in people in this world. At the UF campus we will celebrate together the International Peace Day (September 21, 2016) sponsored by UF Mindfulness. “Peaceful mind, peaceful world.” Come and join us.

Blog UF Mind #9: Authenticity, Mindfulness and Leadership

authentic leadership

By Sabine Grunwald

Authenticity and Leadership

George (2003), the  successful leader and CEO of Medtronic, defines authenticity as “being yourself; being the person you were created to be”. ‘Authenticity’ refers to “being what it purports to be, genuine, real” (Skjei, 2015). The term ‘authenticity’ can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy (e.g., Socrates’ focus on self-inquiry) and is reflected by the Greek aphorism “Know Thyself” (Gardner et al., 2011). According to George (2003) an authentic leader genuinely desires to serve others through their leadership and lead with purpose, meaning, and values. The authentic leadership model developed by Skjei (2015) consists of three pillars: (1) Authentic presence, i.e., the choice to take personal responsibility for who we are; (2) Skillful communication, including self-disclosure, inquiry and conflict resolution based on emotional competencies; and (3) Effective action motivated by service that is compassionate or empathetic.

 

Is There An Absolute Authenticity?

Authenticity sounds great! Who does not want to be present, authentic and feel fully alive and happy in this moment and future moments? Let’s get real; hardly anybody of us is authentic every moment of the day or our whole life. There is no absolute authenticity, a state “frozen-in-time” where our self is static and continuously authentic. Our self and experiences change moment-to-moment (relative authenticity). This moment-to-moment authenticity can be practiced and enhanced through mindfulness deliberately focusing on what arises, what is. Mindfulness practices enhance our ability to stay present – even if our life sometimes gets a little crazy, stressful and overwhelming (Ggggrrrrrrrr !!!).

 

Embodied Self-awareness

The power of now by connecting to the fundamental ground of “what is” brings forth authenticity. In this nowness we embody all aspects of one’s life and we experience joy, happiness, feeling fully alive and perhaps even sacredness. This embodied self-awareness is different from the conceptual self-awareness we may read about in books. Fogel (2013) points out that conceptual self-awareness has logical quality that is expressed in abstract language centered in the left hemisphere of our brain. It is distant, disembodied lacking connection to our felt sense and awareness of the present moment experience. In contrast, embodied self-awareness is a direct encounter with inner knowledge. This embodied self-awareness emerges from the lived experience of the moment. It is spontaneous and felt through sensations in our body, feelings, emotions, images and reflections of our experience. Embodying implies to embrace positive, neutral and negative emotions. An embodied, authentic person has the capability to experience positive feelings and emotions, such as kindness, love, tenderness, connection, and openness to a situation as well as negative ones, such as anger, fear and ignorance. The difference of an authentic person’s response is the reaction to these feelings, sensations, images – in a nutshell everything that bubbles up. For instance, a leader who embodies self-awareness and embraces mindfulness and authenticity is not pulled to react in unhealthy/dysfunctional fashion (e.g., emotionally or physically hurting others or oneself) or self-centered (not serving others) when responding to a crisis situation (e.g., a meltdown of a student in the classroom, financial markets tumbling down due to a political crisis). So instead of responding with blame, anger, shouting, aggression, ignorance or worse the authentic leader asks “how can I serve this moment best to bring forth the best for all?”. An authentic leader’s key skill is emotional resilience and equanimity being fully present to what is, an inner knowing that embraces not only oneself but aims to serve the well-being and happiness of others.

 

Intermingled Authenticities of I and Leaders

Here we may pause and reflect for a moment. Do I strive to embody my own authenticity or blindly follow a leader’s voice? Do I really understand myself, my beliefs and values that serve as a moral compass and provide integrity? Do I connect to my heart to ignite my soul’s deeper purpose that evokes serving others and creates a “better” world? How many mindful and mindless moments did I have today, last week, over the last years?

It is easy to fall into the trap when I feel angry, frustrated and dissatisfied to project these feelings onto somebody else and follow that leader because that leader speaks in a voice of anger, frustration and expresses dissatisfaction putting the blame on others or pushing his/her own, self-centered agenda. Authenticity starts with myself, embodying my moment-to-moment experience and enhancing my cognizance in life through mindfulness. Ahhhh, blaming a leader to be inauthentic would be falling into the same trap. I do have the choice to deny acceptance and support of a leader I believe is disembodied, inauthentic and self-serving creating more harm, turmoil, pain and suffering. And magically if I express this choice I am likely to be fully present, embodied and authentic.

 

References

Fogel, A. 2013. Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness. New York: Norton.

Gardner, W.L., C.C. Cogliser, K.M. Davis and M.P. Dickens. 2011. “Authentic Leadership: A Review of the Literature and Research Agenda.” The Leadership Quarterly, Leadership Quarterly Yearly Review, 22 (6): 1120–45. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.09.007.

George, B. (William W.). 2003. Authentic Leadership – Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publ.

Skjei, S. 2015. “Slide Set: What Is Authentic Leadership?” Naropa University, Authentic Leadership Program, Graduate Certificate Program.

 

 

Blog UF Mind #8: Being bodies and somatic experiencing

Reality and reflection

By Sabine Grunwald

Being bodies or having a body?

Ah, what a delight. I just finished a guided body scan (http://mindfulnesshamilton.ca/meditation-scripts) á la Jon Kabat-Zinn. My body feels relaxed and warm. The spine is resting peacefully on my yoga mat and my body is sinking into the ground. This moment could not be better. Joy emanates from every fiber of my bones, and cells are vibrating in sync with the vibrations of the universe. Was I dreaming? or lost in la la land? Not really, I was fully awake and mindfully focused on scanning parts of my body. My experience was direct, I perceived the release of tension in my belly, the muscles in my calves were loosening up and the tight grip in my lower back was suddenly gone. I cannot really remember any thoughts arising during the body scan because ‘I was my body’, rather than ‘I have a body’ or ‘I felt my body’. Conceptualization that would have separated me from the experience, dropped from my mind. There was only pure awareness. My embodied experience was larger than my physical body. This subtle shift in my experience was significant in that I did not feel separate from my yoga mat and the floor in the living room or my cat sleeping close by. I was in a state of complete embodiment – at least for a moment where nothing else mattered. And yeah, it felt good. Hmmmm, honestly – it was sweet and graceful, simply a delight.

 

Embodiment – What’s it like to be embodied?

Let’s take a moment here and look more deeply at embodiment. When was the last time you felt fully embodied? Think of this embodied experience from the inside-out, outside-in, and sideways. Feel into the embodied state. What felt sense emanated from the experience? Are you fully embodied in this very moment? What sensations do you feel – right now in your body? Try to name them. What is the texture, structure (density) and color of these perceptions? These embodied experiences anchor us, provide grounding, security and safety. The strange thing is that if we completely embody an experience, even one that we would commonly label as negative such as fear (e.g., fear of not meeting expectations in a project at work or in a partnership), we are not overwhelmed by it, we do not run away from it or are paralyzed by it. On the contrary, fear that is fully embodied and owned dissolves into nothingness. But many times our ego in its aggrandized, disembodied state tells us otherwise. We may ignore other’s needs, disregard that we are in need of self-care and so we “muscle through” a situation, or deny ourselves permission to take 10 minutes off and meditate.

 

How to Practice Embodiment

Rick Hanson (2013), an internationally well-known psychologist, provides the following practices to move us – From Idea to Embodied Experience in his book “Hardwiring Happiness (p. 92)”.

  • Be aware of your body as well as the good fact.
  • Soften and open your mind and body, with a sense of receiving the fact.
  • Think about aspects of the good fact that naturally encourage positive emotions, sensations, desires and actions.
  • Be kind toward yourself—like an inner voice saying, “Go ahead, this is real, it’s true, it’s all right to feel good about it.”
  • Imagine that this good fact is in the life of a friend. What experience would you wish for him or her? Could you wish this same experience for yourself?

Somatic Meditation practices allow us to connect with the inherent, self-existing wakefulness that is already present within the body itself (Dharma Ocean, 2016). Somatic Meditation develops a meditative consciousness that is accessed through the feelings, sensations, somatic intuition, and felt sense of the body itself. We are simply tuning into the basic awareness of the body. The practice of Somatic Meditation, as found in the more esoteric traditions of Asia and especially in Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism and in spiritual Taoism, provides the means and methods necessary for making this journey to spiritual embodiment. You can learn more about somatic meditation at Dharma Ocean (2016).

 

Within and Beyond our Physical Body

In somatic psychology (body-mind psychotherapy) embodiment is a key concept. The primary principle of embodiment holds that all experience registers in the soma (i.e., the body), brain and mind. Fogel (2013) points out that embodied self-awareness is the ability to pay attention to ourselves, to feel our sensations, emotions, and movement, in the present moment, without the mediating influence of judgmental thoughts. He says that embodied self-awareness involves interoception (i.e., sensing our breathing, arousal, pain, fatigue, feelings, and the like), the body schema (an awareness of the movement and coordination between different parts of the body and between our body and the environment and others), and exploring the intricacies of our emotions in relation to others and the world. This embodied self-awareness involves being in the subjective emotional present, being able to actually feel one’s sadness or pain, which differs from conceptual self-awareness which is engagement in a thought process (Fogel, 2013). Embodiment in spiritual and Wisdom traditions encompass not only the physical (personal) body, but also the interpersonal and the cosmic body (Ray, 2014). In the Buddhist tradition different bodies are recognized including gross and subtle energetic ones: the nirmanakaya (conditioned body of flesh and blood), sambhogakaya (body of joy; perpetual change and transformation of death and birth; the evermoving energy), and the dharmakaya (body of ultimate reality; unbounded openness and emptiness) (Ray, 2004). Recently, somatic learning has rediscovered ancient truths that are several thousand years old and alive to this day in Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism, indigenous traditions, and others. According to Kaparo (2012) somatic learning provides embodied participation in life of ‘who we really are’. Here, the body is not viewed simply as an object, but as the embodiment of spaciousness, the actual blooming of life in the here and now (Kaparo, 2012). Prendergast (2015) brings it home. He says that (p. 181) “the more clearly we sense that our body is an expression of pure awareness, the more deeply we sense this of the world. There is a direct correspondence: as we are with our body, so we are with the world.”

 

References:

Dharma Ocean (2016). What is somatic meditation? Available at: http://www.dharmaocean.org/meditation/somatic-meditation/.

Fogel A. (2013). Body sense – the science and practice of embodied self-awareness. W.W. Norton Publisher.

Hanson R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. Harmony Publ. [see also” http://www.rickhanson.net/idea-embodied-experience/].

Kaparo R.F (2012). Awakening somatic intelligence: the art and practice of embodied mindfulness. North Atlantic Books.

Prendergast J.J. (2015). In touch – how to tune in to the inner guidance of your body and trust yourself. Sounds Truth.

Ray R.A. (2004). Three in one: a Buddhist trinity. Lion’s Roar, Sept. 1, 2004. Available at: http://www.lionsroar.com/three-in-one-a-buddhist-trinity/

Ray R.A. (2014). Touching enlightenment: finding realization in the body. 1st edition. Sounds True.

Blog UF Mind #7: The right Time, right T-shirt by Nancy Lasseter

Meditation chainYesterday was one of those special days for me. I participated in the UF Mindfulness chain event at the new UF Reitz Union meditation room for a 50 minute practice. It was relaxing and peaceful. I left the meditation room a few minutes after a new chain meditator had arrived and taken his seat. In honor of this event, I wore my white UF Mindfulness t-shirt that has an eye-catching design on the back of the shirt that can be seen easily.

Following my meditation, I walked over to the Plaza of the America’s to have a Krishna lunch. Such a treat. I had my first Krishna lunch some time in the early 70’s when I was an undergrad at UF. I can remember eating my lunch on the lawn, relaxing around other students, hearing the soft chants of “Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna” in the background.

The plaza was the happening place; the central outdoor headquarters for all that was meaningful to we students. Peaceful sit-ins, anti-war protests and civil rights protests began right there. We were a very large, united community. We all seemed to be interested in the same things: equal rights for all, the end of all wars, the uniting of all people on this planet as one family. We believed it was all possible. We felt strong, powerful, and hopeful. We believed that we could and would change the world for the better.

When I stood in line yesterday for my Krishna lunch, one of the kind servers noticed my t-shirt. “UF Mindfulness, what a great idea! I think we all should be mindful and kind to one another, do you teach this?” I smiled and said yes, I teach mindfulness courses to students, faculty and the community and that I wholeheartedly agreed that we all could benefit from mindfulness practices.

Finding a place to sit, I began eating my rice and veggies lunch. Yum. I hadn’t seen  a young man sit down next to me. He had noticed my t-shirt too. “Excuse me, ma’am, you are a teacher of meditation?” Yes, I said. He went on “I have tried to meditate a number of times and I cannot control my thoughts. It has gotten worse. The last three months I am having trouble concentrating on my studies. I feel bad that I have lost some of my ambition.” This began a 45-minute conversation about his feelings since moving to the US from a foreign country less than one year ago. He spoke about heartache, isolation, fear, disappointment with oneself, difficulties in adjusting to a new culture, financial pressures, the multiple distractions of everyday life and the lack of focus in the thinking mind. Over the course of our conversation, I shared the following mindfulness teachings passed down to me over the years. I thought that I might share these teachings here with you as well.

We all have very bMindfulness-13usy minds. This is normal. We cannot control our thoughts. But we can learn to watch the mind. We move too fast from one thing to another. We need to slow down. We can learn, one breath at a time, to become more aware of what we think and how we react to these mental constructs that we create. Our reactions to stressors are based on our appraisal of events in our lives. We appraise an event as stressful or not stressful, as a threat to our wellbeing or not a threat. It is stressful if we believe it to be.

We can learn a great deal from these observations. We can learn to be kind to ourselves, to let go of judgment when we notice our sadness, frustration, fear or disappointment coming up. We are all human. We all share these emotions. They do not go away when we meditate. With practice we get better at taking care of our natural feelings that arise by giving them kind attention and not just getting lost in stories about them. These stories can create more thoughts and stronger reactions and before we know it we are stuck. (He agreed, yes he felt stuck.) With mindfulness meditation, we can notice our breath and begin to see that these thoughts are normal and that these feelings will pass. We learn to watch the thinking mind and to choose not to believe our thoughts. If the mind says “You’ll never make it if you keep studying like this, you’re going to fail and disappoint your family”, we learn to recognize the fear and worry, we hear the story we created, we know that the mind is just making this up. The mind does not have evidence that proves that this is true. This is just the worrying mind, thinking it can help us by ruminating incessantly about things.

Yesterday on the plaza I said to my young friend,  “You will understand better that you are okay just the way you are, that there is nothing wrong with you. You are adjusting to many changes in your life. We talked about his taking some time to share with a friend and to listen inside to his feelings of hurt and fear of the future, to resolve to return to his studies. I told him that I predicted that his ambition will return as he cultivates greater awareness and kindness to himself for having these feelings and thoughts.

Awareness itself is healing. I repeated an old Chinese saying “Name the curse and the dragon disappears.” Just identifying an emotion helps us to let go of our grip around it. It has the chance then to leave, like a long exhalation that leaves our body feeling much less tense.

He began to look more relaxed; encouraged. I told him about the local UF Meditation club and the UF Mindfulness webpage and Facebook page. He thanked me and we said goodbye.

Shortly before we got up to leave, a young man approached. “Sorry, I can see that you are in conversation but I couldn’t help but see your UF Mindfulness t-shirt…Can I just tell you about this new documentary I have created called Connection?”

Like many of us, there are days when I wonder if I’ve chosen the right clothes for the occasion and the weather. Today I had no doubt. The UF Mindfulness t-shirt was just right for this day. I walked away from the plaza feeling its power today. We are all strong and powerful. We can change the world, maybe just by starting with ourselves and working out from there…I remembered the old compassion meditation “May I be safe and protected, may I be strong and healthy, may I be truly happy, may I live my life with ease…that finishes with “May all beings everywhere be safe, strong and healthy, truly happy and live their lives with ease.”

Yes, the Plaza of the America’s has changed over the years. Yet it remains a place of nature and beauty, a quiet place for the sharing of ideas, for eating nutritious food, for meditation, hammock resting and connecting with new and old friends

Nancy Lasseter, Ed.S., LMHC. Wellness Educator UF Mindfulness Team

Blog UF Mind #6: I am too busy to be mindful

roosters picking grains

By Sabine Grunwald

Our lives are packed with activities. I talked to Susan the other day. She is an undergraduate student at UF and her schedule is full each week with class assignments, quizzes, exams and deadlines. She is rushing to Starbucks to get a boost for the next class and no time for lunch because the assigned reading material is excruciatingly painful. “Just to survive this semester” she said. I asked her if this is what she expected from being in college. Susan looked disoriented and replied “I do not even have time to ponder this question.” Lately, she is feeling nauseated and is battling headaches she reported. “It is all too much” she replied. Then I asked her if she would consider learning some mindfulness tools that would allow her to re-energize and destress, thereby improving her ability to focus which helps the learning process, perhaps even achieving a higher grade in the next exam. She bluntly denied “I am too busy to add another thing to my busy schedule”.

“I am too busy to meditate” has become a slogan in our modern fast-paced life. We literally believe that there is no minute we can spare to quiet down and benefit from mindfulness practices. The attitude is that time needs to be filled with activities because otherwise it is felt we are wasting our time. Even in our spare time we keep ourselves busy going to the gym to work out or clean the house. The underlying idea is that “just sitting and doing nothing” is being lazy, and lazy does not allow to achieve the American dream to become the best, with all the sweet material things and $ that come with it. There is a misconception that sitting in meditation or being mindful taking few breaths is somehow destructive to this dream – let it be to earn a college degree, place a high paid job or gain a comfortable social position. This habitual pattern of “doing” is often so strong that we may not even notice it in our daily lives; literally we are too busy and stressed to notice. On the other side of the street is cultivation of “just being”, experiencing this very moment fully. Sitting in meditation freaks us out because we are not used to it. It makes us uneasy because it may be mental voodoo unstabilizing our solid sense self. It makes us different because everybody else around us is on the rush, hence slowing down would seem like going against our dream.

These are not only common believes in the student population at large universities, such as UF, but also found among many staff and faculty members. The other day I tried to schedule a project meeting time and the doodle poll suggested that literally over the next two months there is no time for our research team of four to meet because our calendars are clocked up with pre-scheduled appointments, teaching and project/proposal deadlines. We are running around like roosters and chickens heads down picking grain after grain from the ground without even looking up. We cannot spare a minute to attune. Attune to what? To our body and mind, to the moment rushing by without being noticed.  Be honest – now take few deep breaths before answering this question. I mean really, inbreath – outbreath, inbreath – outbreath, inbreath – outbreath. Do you believe you have time to be mindful? Or are you too busy to meditate, even for one minute a day.

Blog UF Mind #5: Neuroplasticity

neuroplasticity

By Sabine Grunwald

I was just opening an email the other day which notified me in plain English “your research proposal has been rejected.” Not the first time this happens, and really as an academic I know that the success rate for many federally-funded programs is often between 5-15 percent; meaning that statistically in average one proposal out of 10 submitted ones are funded. My mind was not letting go of the rejection. I really put major effort and lots of sweat into writing it and filled out the pile of forms to submit the proposal. From my perspective my research idea was brilliant and for certain transformative and ground-breaking. Why was My proposal rejected? Oh, dear. I was caught in a negative thinking loop. Anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness were laying a shadow over my sweet cup of vanilla chamomile tea that I usually enjoy. My meditation session suddenly did not seem as blissful and my friend did not smile at me anymore. My day was going literally sour and from then on downhill. Can you relate to this? I bet you can also name something that happened to you lately and your mind labelled it as negative so that you could not even recognize the one hundred other positive things going on the same day.

Have you ever wondered why we are drawn to the negative instead of seeing the positive in our lives? Scientists have found that this is very common. Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, provides some answers. It’s all about how our brain works that consists of three major brain portions: (1) The oldest reptilian brain made up of the brain stem and cerebellum which are responsible for survival instincts (e.g., fight, flight or freeze response in a threatening situation), (2) the mammalian brain / limbic system which are responsible for feelings and memory formation, and (3) the evolutionary youngest portion – the neocortex, our “thinking” brain which provides language, reasoning, logic and perspective taking capability (e.g., planning into the future). This whole human brain, about three pounds of tofu-like tissue contains 1.1 trillion cells including about 100 billion neurons. On average, each neuron receives about five thousand connections, called synapses, from other neurons. At its receiving synapses, a neuron gets signals (usually as a burst of neurotransmitters) from other neurons. And a typical neuron fires 5-50 times a second. In the time you read this sentence literally quadrillions of signals travel inside your brain (Hanson, 2009). These neuronal patterns are adapted as we grow older and in response to new experiences. This is what’s called neuroplasticity, i.e., the changing of the structure, function and organization of neurons in your brain in response to new experiences. It works like this. First is an experience (e.g., I enjoy surfing  waves) that stimulates mental activity which can be a thought, feeling or action (e.g., I feel joy and elation while surfing). Second, a new neural structure is created because neurons that fire together, wire together. Third, if the experience is repeated (e.g., I go surfing every day) I strengthen the same neural connections because neurons that wire together make more lasting circuits. There is some caveat to it. Rick Hanson (2009, 2013), and many other neuroscientists, say that our brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls and reacts to unpleasant experiences. It’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Rick says that even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. So the flow of daily experiences gradually sculpts your brain and shapes your mind.

Amazing, isn’t it? So when I experience many research proposal rejections the neural pathways in my brain are trained that bring up negative emotions, such as feeling frustrated, disappointed, sad and  angry. At some point I may not even want to submit proposals anymore because I feel overwhelmed or helpless in light of previous experiences. And this response becomes my habitual pattern.

The good news is that if I understand how my brain works I may deliberately chose experiences that bring forth positive/pleasant feelings. Or I may bring awareness to inquire about these negative patterns that once brought into consciousness can be shifted. For example, I may use a contemplative meditation practice and sit with the feeling of rejection (e.g., a proposal, social rejection by a colleague, my boss or a friend) and non-judgmentally inquire into my body. I may find that really in the core of my being I am basically good and intrinsically O.K.  I may recognize that others feel rejected too and compassion and empathy may dwell up. The somatic relaxation will also allow me to let go of the story line that my thinking mind made up about being rejected.

We can deliberately change how we experience future events in our life and mindfulness plays a major role in it. Spending hours each day texting messages will wire those neural pathways in the brain attuned to brief communication in a virtual world, but will not help much writing a beautiful essay, critical discussion section in a science paper or increase intimacy in a partnership. Literally your choices determine who you will become by training your mind and neural pathways.

Rick Hanson (2013) suggests hardwiring our happiness which builds on creating positive neural pathways by consciously experiencing the positive, beauty and sacredness in our lives. For example, you may consciously take in when somebody is kind to you or you experience a joyful moment (e.g., the most wonderful sunset you have ever seen). Importantly, the more deeply we associate a strong positive feeling/emotion with an experience (e.g., by taking 10 seconds and deep breaths to notice the beauty in the sunset) the longer lasting the effects – literally, we strengthen those neural pathways. Shawn Achor (2010), who teaches the Happiness class at Harvard University, suggests embracing positive psychology and the neuroplasticity of our brains. He argues that happiness is the precursor to success. According to Shawn, happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement giving us the competitive edge which he calls “the Happiness Advantage.”  Waiting to be happy –  after we achieve a promotion, receive an acceptance letter, an A in an exam, getting a paper published – limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative and productive, which drives performance upward. This sounds wonderful exciting to me.

 

References:

Achor S. (2010). The happiness advantage: the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Crown Business Publ.

Hanson R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. New Harbinger Publ.

Hanson R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm and confidence. Harmony Publ.

Blog UF Mind #4: What makes you tick?

Meditating Buddha

By Sabine Grunwald

I am a Professor in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the University of Florida (UF), and a meditator with a daily meditation practice. I teach geographic information systems (GIS), and lead UF Mindfulness. I conduct research in quantitative soil science (pedometrics) & carbon/climate-land use change modeling, and like to learn about all kinds of things with curiosity. We all play multiple roles in life, e.g., as a scientist, teacher, mom, daughter, coach, learner, dad, son, activist, meditator, listener, coach, ….. Carl Gustav Jung, a famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, acknowledged these roles in life and discerned the ‘persona’ and ‘shadow’ (Stein, 1998). Jung pioneered depth psychology which refers to an open exploration of the subtle, unconscious, and transpersonal aspects of human experience. Persona is the face or mask we wear to meet the social world around us, e.g., being a teacher in STEM at a large, diverse university campus. This is the official and “public person” that forms the psycho-social identity of an individual. The persona is the person that we become as a result of education, growing up, and adaptation to our physical and social environments. Contemporary culture has embraced the term persona, the person-as-presented to others, not the “person-as-real” with an inner felt sense. The shadow is the hidden, reclusive, unconscious psychic factors of the ego of which we have no awareness. According to C.G. Jung, every ego has a shadow – it’s unavoidable, which are the parts of the personality that would ordinarily belong to the ego if they were integrated in our psyche, but have been suppressed because of cognitive or emotional dissonance, often traumatic experiences (e.g., an accident, being rejected and ridiculed by a group of people, or worse). Interestingly, often our shadow is “running the show in our life” without us even being aware of it. Meditation and mindfulness allow us to learn more about our shadow and inner life, our multiple roles/persona. As we sit in meditation and practice mindfulness, we become more conscious of what is really going on within us – our mind/thinking, visceral sensations/body tension, feelings/emotions and relationships to partners, family, friends, and particular not-really friends (enemies), people that upset or trigger us in one way or another (e.g., “that unbelievable arrogant, unkind, whatever stupid person in the meeting pushing his agenda ……”) – and so the narrative story of our ego unfolds. Here we go. When we sit in meditation, slow down our chatter mind and create space that allows us to observe this “not-really friend” with fresh eyes we can gain clarity. We deliberately focus our awareness on the sensations in our body, perhaps we notice a knot in our throat or a visual image that shows us how WE pushed the agenda in another meeting. This brings us face-to-face with the recognition that we may all have moments when we are carried away and pushed our own agendas. “Seeing our own behavior in the other” helps us to see bluntly our judgments and blame, and this very seeing allows us to let go of the blame we put on the supposedly not-really friend – Oh, well – we suddenly soften, and gently the not-really friend is transformed to look more friendly, an ordinary human being, like all of us. In essence, we dive into our shadow and learn valuable insights of “what makes us tick”. Often this seeing clearly dissolves whatever makes us stuck, upsets us or evokes strong emotions, such as anger. Importantly, mindfulness practice not only benefits our own inner well-being, but also our relationships with others.

You possibly know that the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney and Richard Gere are committed meditators. But did you know that Clint Eastwood, Jennifer Aniston, Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Cameron Diaz, Goldie Hawn, Lady Gaga, Rupert Murdoch (media), Bill George (former Medtronic CEO), Bill Ford (Ford Motor Company), Jerry Seinfeld, Phil Jackson (NBA coach), Bill Clinton, Tim Ryan, and many other famous people meditate regularly.  A number of Fortune 500 companies, including Google, AOL, Apple and Aetna, offer meditation and mindfulness classes for employees. Scientists, like Richard J. Davidson (UW-Madison), John Hagelin (theoretical physicist), and Albert Einstein have embraced meditation. Even the U.S. Army is now teaching mindfulness to soldiers.  The British parliament has practiced mindfulness meditation with weekly sits as part of the mindfulness program of the U.K. government that offers extensive training. Meditation is practiced widely, irrespective of profession, social role, financial status, ethnic group or religious beliefs. Indeed, mindfulness has become mainstream in America. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health https://nccih.nih.gov/news/press/02102015mb survey nearly 18 million adults and 927,000 children in the U.S. practiced meditation (2012). And approximately 21 million adults (nearly double the number from 2002) and 1.7 million children practiced yoga. Are you one of them?

Reference:

Stein, M. (1998). Jung’s map of the soul. Open Court Publ., Chicago, Illinois.

Blog UF Mind #3: Are you practicing, talking or reading about mindfulness?

meditator

 

By Sabine Grunwald

Lately articles, posts and books about mindfulness are popping up by the minute. Mindfulness is in the news literally everywhere. We hatch on and read and talk about mindfulness saying  “I am mindful”. But what does that really mean? Are we mindful reading and talking about mindfulness? I love to browse the web and in a blink of any eye I am on the “Mind and Life” web site, listen to the latest podcast from Reggie Ray (Dharma Ocean), and absolutely need to tune in the guided meditation by Susan Piver from the Open Heart Project followed by a vivid Q&A. And of course, the latest research articles in the Mindfulness Journal are super interesting providing even more evidence that mindfulness is beneficial to enhance cognitive, emotional, bodily, and neurological functions. STOP – a voice is rushing through my mind saying something like “Damn, I am not really being mindful”. And the story blaming myself for being mindless keeps unfolding. Yeah, an academic mind trained in science likes to conceptualize and uses the left-brain to think about things like mindfulness. Now I am really trying to get to the ground of it and “think myself into being more mindful”. Geeeee, that is not really working that well because I am disconnected from my perceptions, my body and felt sense of my interior.

According to Chozen Bays (2011) “mindfulness is deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you (in your body, heart and mind) in the present moment. Mindfulness is awareness without criticism or judgement”. To dissect this further, I use my senses (hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching) and my mind (thinking) to stay fully with the experience – right now, what I can perceive in this moment – that’s the practice of mindfulness. I let go of judgement (e.g., “this is a brilliant idea, an unpleasant smell of French fries, or an insanely buzzing and noisy classroom”) and put the egoic voices of my constantly chattering mind to rest. I feel the aliveness and beauty of the moment, sense relief, my body releases the tenseness hold in my shoulders from sitting at my office desk, and I sense openness in this very moment. That is practice of mindfulness. This is the ‘being side’ of mindfulness that I can practice in my daily sitting meditation or pausing and taking three deep breaths before answering the phone or walking mindfully to the next appointment. When you ask me what is more important – practice, talking or reading about mindfulness – my wholehearted answer is – all three. Only practicing mindfulness while ignoring what is known about mindfulness would be one-sided. And vice versa, only reading and talking about mindfulness without deliberately practicing it would limit myself from entering fully into the experience of the present moment which brings forth clarity, understanding and joy. I believe that to reach our highest human potential, feel alive and happy, and perform well in daily life is to strike the balance among practice, talking and reading about mindfulness. Join us to practice meditation, share mindful/mindless moments we all have experienced, and chat about mindfulness at the Plaza of Americas (Dates for upcoming mindfulness practice sessions: https://mindfulness.ufl.edu/index.php/events/).

Reference:

Jan Chozen Bays (2011). How to train a wild elephant & other adventures in mindfulness. Shambhala Publ., Boston, MA.

Blog UF Mind #2: What makes you happy?

Sky and snow

By Sabine Grunwald

Have you ever pondered about “what really makes me happy?” and “how can I bring more happiness into my life?”. Lately this question what fulfills me deeply and makes me happy has been nagging. So I sat with it, journaled and observed non-judgmentally what came up. Just let it flow and in free association contemplated this question. You know that this is easy to say but actually somewhat challenging to do because it requires letting go of the thinking mind. Try it. It is about getting to the deeper levels of knowing that are typically buried in our unconscious mind. Contemporary psychodynamic theory assumes that there are dynamic unconscious processes that shape our moment-to-moment experience and behavior. Making them conscious is a step toward freedom, insight and healing. Psychodynamic theories assume that a person is somehow structured intelligently by “forces”, “parts”, “voices”, “internal objects”, and so forth that have the capacity to self-organize and often unconsciously run our lives. We all are familiar with these somewhat crazy sounding voices that make up stories about us, others and everything that we encounter at work or at home. And these voices can get us into trouble to show up in ugly, demeaning ways ……. To recognize that they are only egoic voices is a relief. But these voices are not really ‘who I am’ – deep down.  When I connected in that way to the experiences arising in the present moment it became clear to me that creating space and probing into this question about ‘what makes me happy’ was self-soothing and self-compassionate. It immediately made me smile. The point I like to make is that all of us can create mindful spaces in our ordinary and busy life to find out what’s beneath our typically monkey mind chatter, what really matters to us, and what makes us ‘who we are’. This smile when we pass somebody walking across campus matters deeply and touches me and others. Happiness and joy arises. Indeed, it is important to meet the next project deadline, exam, assignment or whatever demands our life brings. But missing these moments because we are distracted and mindless we may also miss to feel alive, connected and happy.

P.S. The photo shows an incredible, beautiful sky in the Rocky Mountains, CO. When was the last time you have looked at the clouds in the sky?

Blog UF Mind #1: Mindfulness

lotus

By Sabine Grunwald

All human beings are born with the seed of the most beneficial universal qualities, such as compassion, creativity, integrity and wisdom. Ancient wisdom tells us to abide and rest in the present moment and emptiness dismantling our narcissistic ego structures. In modern Western society we struggle with being in the present moment because we multi-task, keep our lives filled with activities that keep us busy, we are caught in distractive behaviors, such as watching TV or spending hours on social media.

Importantly, mindfulness does not belong to Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism or Christianity, just as the breath we inhale and exhale does not belong to any one of us. Though we can learn from the Wisdom Traditions and what they had to say about mindfulness. Mindfulness originally appeared in old Buddhist texts. “Sati” – mindfulness – stands for awareness, attention and remembering.  Wisdom traditions provide the non-secular roots of mindfulness practices that are typically integral part of a religious or spiritual practice.  For instance, meditation practices are foundational to train the mind and look deeply at Self and No Self in Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy based on the doctrine of the Upanishads, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and others.  Tibetan Buddhist teachings (dharma) distinguish between shamatha (mindfulness practice) – to develop a stable and restful mind, tranquility and peace and vipashyana(awareness, clarity, insight, prajna = wisdom). Out of shamatha-vipashyana arise naturally qualities of compassion, kindness, gentleness, generosity and expanded consciousness.

You may not be inclined to adopt a specific spiritual or religious path and cultivate a meditation practice. But I like the striking example Daniel Rechtschaffen (2014) provided: Coffee originated in Ethiopia and for millennia made its way to the Middle East and now it fills the cups of drinkers around the world. The effect that coffee has on people is universal and is beloved equally by many Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. The effects of mindfulness practices are considerably more mellow than coffee, but they are just as universal. Of course, just as drinking coffee will not make you Ethiopian, practicing mindfulness will not make you Buddhist.

Reference:

Rechtschaffen, D.J. (2014). The way of mindful education – cultivating well-being in teachers and students. Norton Books, New York, NY.