Trying to Start Close In

I have a lot of plans. Most of which will never leave my mind, let alone get spoken out loud or recorded in written word. A multitude of fantastical fantasies, each detailing how my future could unravel itself successfully. So much of my day and my formal meditation time is spent in my head like this. It’s wonderfully easy to do. In fact, I am an expert at it. If you want guidance as to how to waste your time running stories around and around, I’m your man.

So when I heard David Whyte’s poem “Start Close In” recently I could see myself clearly pictured amongst his words and especially the part

Don’t take, the second step, or the third, start with the first, thing, close in, the step, you don’t, want to take.

from River Flow: New and Selected Poems

Passing time in my head rather than here in the present, in this body, is no challenge. There is no resistance here. It is comfortable. Which is why it is also such a beguiling place to reside for extended periods. So I have made myself a promise to put more effort in moving away from the facile second and third steps and take a ‘small step I can call my own’.

You can find him on facebook at @PoetDavidWhyte

Here he is reading his poem. Underneath are the printed lines of the verse

START CLOSE IN

Start close in,
don’t take 
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t 
want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To hear
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes an
intimate
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, 
be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t 
want to take.

Barry White and Mindfulness

I own no right to this image at all

Earlier today I heard “Let the music play” for the first time in I don’t know how long. I am not a Mr White officianado, but I do love this tune and especially the long version. In it Barry is out walking the streets after what we can presume is a barney with his woman. Barry is feeling bad about this, very bad in fact. He happens upon a night club and once inside,as the title suggests, just wants the dj to let the music play all through the night so he can dance away his blues.

Everyone fails and has their plans thwarted. We all make mistakes and do and say things we regret both instantly and over a long period. So we all are intimate with that feeling of rawness and vulnerability when it happens. Often, we try mask those sensations by muffling or running away from them. But doing this just denies reality. Refusing to accept such emotions leads us to blaming others and/or ourselves and eventually to addictions, both gentle and harsh.

Instead we could try to lean in a little to the pain and learn to relax a bit with the truth of change and groundlessness. If that happens, then we can begin to experience that just as circumstances are always impermanent, then so are our feelings and emotions. They are not us, they too are merely passing by. When we have that knowledge, we will not only be kinder to ourselves, but a compassion for all people will naturally arise as we see how everyone is sailing this same storm.

In fact, we can tell that Barry White did this. He must have paused, breathed and turned towards feelings of pain and negativity. If he had never done that in his life he could not have written such words and the tune to go with them. By “holding the rawness of vulnerability in his heart” (Pema Chodron) he has seen a common humanity in suffering and made some dam funky art out of it.

I’m out here dancing and still/ I can’t erase the things I feel.

Slowing down mindfulness

IMG_6207-1

It is difficult to fully understand and accept the idea that there are no intended outcomes from practising mindfulness. It isn’t going to fit on a performance management sheet. It won’t sit easily as part of a self improvement plan. Instead, the invitation is to let go of the idea of not being good enough, untangle ourselves from our habit of self-judgement and just come back to how things are for us right now.

The frequently mentioned guidance to do this is  ‘letting go of wanting things to be a particular way’ – such a simple instruction, but yet so difficult to do. This is because our habit is to judge some mind states as good, and so we move out to grab and clinch them. We see others as harmful or negative and we try to stiff arm them away. The aim of mindfulness is not to purge ourselves of emotions or thoughts, but rather to know they are present. Joseph Goldstein explains the advantage of this when he says “I would rather see them and explore them, than not see them and act them out”

After receiving some wise advice about my practice last year,  I began to realise how quickly I try to drop distractions when I notice them. My internal dialogue normally runs “Damn I’m distracted again – back to the breath NOW!” It’s like a child in the middle of taking an extra biscuit out the jar in the kitchen, who hears a parent’s footsteps and immediately drops the swag and scarpers for the door.

Since receiving this guidance, I am slowly beginning to see that a wiser, kinder way to work with emotions and thoughts is firstly to stand back slightly from the disconnection, as though stepping to the calmer waters of the river’s edge. Then from that safer vantage point, to investigate what they are like; bringing a kind and curious attitude to the distraction while doing this.  And only after that, to gently place the attention back to where I had intended it to be. 

I have found mindfulness often swims against the way I have been trained to think by the society I have been brought up in. Mindfulness is a counter-cultural practice to follow. Going slower, without a target in mind is a central part to that. But it sure can be liberating.

The balance of mindfulness

Old Sarum

You sit down, get comfortable, straighten your back, allow the attention to rest on the breath and within five seconds bang! away goes the mind. Normally you might either fight these thoughts and feelings or get washed downstream with them. In mindfulness though, the invitation is to notice this pulling away from the present moment and come back to just the bare knowing of what is happening right now. And we do this again and again and again.

Therefore its not important what turns up in the mind; the content is just the content and it arises, hangs around a while and disbands before being replaced by an endless supply of more content. Instead, the practice is how we relate to what is arising. So the intention is neither to deny and push back against what is present, nor get drawn in and overwhelmed by it, but rather, to observe and witness it as best we can.

So mindfulness is a balancing relationship with whatever is present and this being balanced needs a light touch and a gentle and kind awareness of what is here. That is how we try to relate to ourselves whilst practicing

I wrote this having listened to Episode 1 of Sharon Salzburg’s Metta Hour podcast on Spotify. This episode contains a lovely mindfulness practice at the end as well.

https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/5dlh7UeAX39ofOPabgJP4g

The part of the practice that really struck home for me and inspired this short post was from about 25 minutes in and you can listen to this below

Now is enough

“I had a great mindfulness practice this morning, I felt really calm afterwards…….”

(2 days later….)

“My mindfulness practice was awful today. I had no calm or peace at all and was just away with the fairies. I wish I had a quieter room to sit in”

Expectation is a sneaky feeling: the expectation that you will become relaxed, the expectation that when you sort out the stresses in your life, then you will have enough time to sit mindfully for an hour a day and then be calmer and kinder to everyone. Expectation leads to hope for the future and how much better everything will be and fear that life won’t work out that way. And its more difficult to let go of hope and fear once they have started a run.

So to practice mindfulness with expectation leads to problems of grasping on to something or pushing it away. This in turn leads the mind away from the present moment; we become disconnected from attention. Joseph Goldstein refers to a mantra he uses

“It doesn’t matter to what we don’t cling”

from Audible version of Joseph Goldstein ‘Mindfulness’

In other words in today’s practice, as we sit, stand or walk we are already able to not cling to what arises; whether it is raking over the past or running future plans. We do not need better conditions or more years of experience. We merely ‘not cling’ to what is arising in this practice right now. I find this idea really encouraging and empowering. Nothing else is needed. The content of practice is not so important, its how we relate to it that is key. Noticing and letting go of this sensation now. That is all.

A mindfulness practice for our Coronavirus times

The recent big changes in all our circumstances has brought uncertainty and anxiety for everyone. More than usual maybe, our thoughts and emotions may run away with us and leave us confused and upset.

This brief mindfulness practice is offered as a way of dropping in to the present moment; noticing our fears and concerns and then maybe letting go of them as well.

Before starting it you should find yourself a quietish place and a chair in which you can ‘sit well’. However the practice goes for you, see it as a time in which you have spent looking after your own well being; your mental and your physical health. There is no right way to feel doing this practice – whatever arises for you is just how it is in this moment. So if possible you should not judge the time you spend sitting as either good or bad.

If you have any questions before or after following these guidelines then please do email me at philip@trustingmind.co.uk

Mindfulness of breath and body

The First Free Women

I’ve never reviewed a book of poems before, let alone one that is ‘the world’s oldest collection of women’s literature’. But as soon as this was delivered I was picking it up daily to read or reread or re-reread a poem. This is without doubt an inspiring collection, oozing with both courage and compassion. These no nonsense lines of early, early Buddhist verse were written by the very first women to practice meditation. They are all anyone could want in honest encouragement in what it is like practicing mindfulness and meditation; how it is frequently seriously difficult but also how it can be fantastically rewarding for both ourselves and others.

There are stories of unimaginable struggle:

do you remember when disease came to your family,

you were the only one to survive?

and

A life of debts I could never repay

pushing in on all sides

like the weight of the sea

The more you read these poems, the more the change in living conditions but the disappointingly familiar struggles for women become clearer and clearer.

But most strongly you come away with an understanding of the immeasurable potential there is in all of us, whatever our present situation.

And so this is an uplifting, barefacedly-honest poetry collection that talks of resilience and joy and of letting your mind go…… its well worth your time.

The Monkey Mind by Carolyn Kanjuro

This new box of 30 ‘meditation cards’ for children to use arrived this week and I very much like the first look of it. Each of the card ls has an animal (Singular Salmon or Brave Butterfly for example) or a natural feature (Hurricane, Starry Night are two) as a title. They also have three simple to follow steps and a key phrase. All this means children will easily be able to connect with what they are being asked to do. Hopefully then, if they are presented in a right way by a skilled and kind guide the benefits could be huge.

I shall be employing these with my classes as soon as I can. This pack looks like an excellent addition to the tools available to children’s mindfulness teachers.

No definitions

Mindfulness can help us live better lives both for ourselves and for others. So a definition of what it is is not nearly as useful as what it does how it functions. Mindfulness

“helps us develop a capacity for flexibility rather than rigidity, responsiveness rather than reactivity”

Feldman and Kuyken in “Mindfulness: ancient wisdom, modern psychology”

We practice mindfulness and a gap can grow between stimulus and response. And in this response

“lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.”

Viktor Frankl

Therefore mindfulness gives us a chance to live more wisely. We start by noticing the present moment just as it is; without associations to past events or future planning. When attention is paid in this way awareness arises. This in turn creates in our minds an investigative wisdom that brings an understanding of what is nourishing and what is depleting. So a continued practice of mindfulness can create compassion for both ourselves and the people and environment around us. We can ‘open the clenched fist in our mind, let go and fall into the midst of everything’. Which is as close to a definition of mindfulness as I’d like to get today.