Practice diary: 22nd September

Over the last month some friends have kindly popped round to see me between finishing at their work and going home. They have all told me how tired they feel. Which is ironic when I am the one off with fatigue.

Recuperating at home is not a difficult assignment. “Take it easy and look after yourself. It is important not to rush things. You need to be get fully better.” is my non expert take on what the GP and consultant said. So I have set out an easy daily schedule during which, if I start to feel tired, I can just stop and take a nap.It’s a very easy life to be honest. Since I am not presently rushing from job to job, I have noticed this wide current of thoughts and emotions that normally I would have looked straight passed. This flow is the left overs from all the doing, doing, doing and relentless multitasking of life. There is no point in me trying to resist it or, at the end of the scale, trying to ignore it. It is just there. So all I can effectively do is patiently let it pass on by in its own time and not to attempt to push the river.

And if that is the sum of my achievement whilst away from work then this time off will have been a luxurious gift to myself.

Its also no wonder why we all look so tired if normally we only have time to be doing things and none for just being.

Practice diary: 21st September

Once people know I teach mindfulness, their perception of me changes. They expect calmness at all times and in all responses. They are normally disappointed.

Now that my hours are less congested with obligations and my body less filled with energy, some space has appeared in the day. Things are certainly a lot quieter for me right now than for all my friends who are at work. So it should be a fertile time for me to practice meditation – you’d have thought. Sitting this morning was a pretty typical experience. The bell rang to start. I came to a feeling of body and breath and then almost immediately my mind was dispersed and forgetful. I was planning my future. There I was doing stuff that meant everything worked out well for me. I was both centre stage and the good guy in the tales I was telling in my mind. This is normal for me. I have a great attachment to the idea of me, of Philip. My hand is clenched tightly around the image I have of self.

To be sure, this tendency can be very annoying. But I am gradually learning that being more aware of my habits and of noticing a pattern in my distractions is a good thing. I may not be the patron saint of calmness people expect a mindfulness teacher to be, but I am starting to notice some my mental agitations and addictions as they arise, stay a while and fade away.

Practice diary: 20th September

What would be healthy is to see this being signed off work as a good thing. To turn toward the opportunity I have been provided.

In a mindfulness session the person guiding the practice is likely to say something along the lines of “If you notice your mind has wandered then, without any judgement or self criticism, let go of the distraction and return the mind to where you had intended it to be.” There is no discrimination as to the distraction; whether a future fantasy or a raking over of a negative event in the past, where the mind is attending is not important. It is noticing the mind’s dispersal that is the practice.

Similarly, at this time of frustration and guilt at being at home and not at work, I would like to gently and slowly let go of those thoughts and emotions and return to what is actually here – not to get lost and inattentive in my own projections of how things are now and how they might be in the future. Instead seeing this circumstance as it is; not moving my mind enthusiastically toward it, nor be pushing it away. It doesn’t matter if the path is a pretty country lane or a foreboding concrete underpass; this is how it is.

Practice diary: 19th September

In my wonderful local park last week

I am writing primarily for my own good. Firstly, it’s a chance to structure a little more of my day and not let it slide and secondly I hope to stop and reflect more on how my own practice sits at the moment. The reason I am making it public is to give myself the discipline to maintain the effort and follow through on the initial intention.

After 3 or 4 TIAs in July my lockdown extended and deepened a little. Just at the time nearly all of you started to meet up and go out more I was sleeping on my sofa and recovering. My practice dried up for a month or so as well. Though, with the help of the many online guided practices that become available in 2020 I have found it easy to get back in the habit and I now more clearly understand the potential for joining together in practice virtually.

Prompted by finding out this week that I have at least another month off from work, I want to use this platform to record reflections on my practice and my limited reading. I am not stupid enough to think this will appeal much to anyone else, but if a word or phrase over the next few weeks, lands well for someone, then that would be a delightful bonus.

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.