Practice diary: 27th September

I’ve loved getting older. I bristle when people tell teenagers or those in their twenties “these are the best years of your life.” What a depressing way of looking at your time on this Earth. I like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve become a little wiser.

Something Ive come to know slowly over time is the effect of different places and rooms in my house. For instance, if it’s the weekend or a holiday and I’m staying in, then I am best not stocking up on biscuits or chocolate. Because if I’m spending 48 hours in close proximity to a packet of chocolate biscuits, I know it will be long gone before the second day and I will be pondering buying resupplies by Sunday or maybe earlier.

Similarly, reading anything other than the lightest or shortest of text cannot be done on the sofa. My lounge life is set up to fulfil my desire for distraction. On the coffee table sit the clutch of black remotes that control: bluetooth speaker, tv, satellite tv (2) and DVD player. Then there is also a laptop nearby, phone and a tablet. So, you know, I am in touch digitally you could say.

So I have an armchair situated out of reach of these various magic boxes to which I transfer in order to read. Similarly, I have set up my meditation space in the bedroom, away from all the gadgets, sugary items and other enchantments. And it’s in a corner of the room I only use for this purpose. Maybe one day my mindfulness practice will be strong enough to sit amongst all the accessible sensory attractions and distractions, but for now the wisdom of age tells me to escape a little and meditate there instead.

Practice diary: 26th September

There needs to be a balance between being and doing. In normal 21st century life much more value is of course placed on the latter. At first I thought going totally against this trend, sliding into days free of structure and allowing whatever arises to be there was the best way to get better. But sitting around not doing much wasn’t really pushing my recuperation along. I felt as if I was dawdling through it. I needed some structure to enable better progress – my body needed a stronger emphasis on doing.

As a secondary school teacher I prefer to get my students learning by listening and doing. I am not a fan of ‘finding out for yourself’ when it comes to teaching children geography. I plan my lessons so that firstly I describe and explain features, processes and/or ideas. Then the pupils will do some work on them to hopefully embed what they have learnt. After that I check to see how well they have learnt (by questioning, marking, assessments et al) and if that has all worked well, we will move onto the next set of features, processes and ideas. So in the school classroom I oversee learning that is much more ‘doing’ than ‘being’.

On a mindfulness course the participants are encouraged to experience for themselves and to learn from this experience. Over time they will hopefully become more trusting of the being mode and less reliant on our 21st century worship of doing. When I started as a mindfulness teacher I had to adjust to this approach as my school teaching background was so different. But I also came to realise that whilst I and the participants should stop to work with what came up in the moment, I myself would also need to keep an eye on the program as a whole. It was not a question of one method at the complete expense of the other.

I think practicing mindfulness gives allows more reflection on this doing and being balance. It allowed me to notice and change my way of living. Over the week since I have put into action my meditating/ walking/ gardening/ meditating again regime I have begin to feel much healthier, happier and positive about myself. I think this readjustment and the associated change to being more mindful when I am active has sped up my recovery and improved how I feel about myself..

At the risk of being a little pompous, Carl Jung described the ever changing balance I am aspiring to better than I have here. He said “Learn your theories well, so you can put them aside when you touch the living soul.”

Practice diary: 25th September

I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had to get a doctor’s note to cover absence from work before.

So when I rang a week before term started I was uncertain what to say to prove I deserved my GP’s written permission. He had seen me whilst I had been properly ill. I wasn’t faking it and I knew he was a considerate man. Nevertheless I was anxious enough about the conversation to have had a few phrases written down next to me on the sofa for when he rang that afternoon.

Two minutes after he’d rang the call was over. “I think you’ll need a month at first. Does that sound okay to you?’ I was a little bit stunned. I believed that incontrovertible proof would have to be accepted before I was granted permission. But instead the GP was simply doing an ordinary part of his job. I wasn’t a special case and he would be making other much more difficult conversations later that day.

My school had also rung earlier that day to check on how I was doing. Amongst all the other palaver and COVID related actions and reactions everyone there is having to deal with, this was a really touching action to take. I was kindly told “What we want is healthy and happy staff. So make sure you are properly better before you come back.” I couldn’t have asked for better support.

What is interesting is the apprehension and guilt I felt about taking time off. I’m still not sure that there is a one identifiable reason for this feeling. It was probably a mixture of factors from the personal to the cultural. Having had time to think and to realise that I am getting better sat at home, I definitely don’t feel that guilt any longer. What I think is important is that we look after ourselves both mentally and physically. The world will not struggle to get by without us if we aren’t at our desk. We aren’t a vital cog in the wheel driving our fellow beings’ survival and happiness. Maybe we should get down from our high horse and not try to martyr ourselves by carrying on when we need to stop. It really is doing us no good at all. Instead it would be better to pause and take stock of what our body is telling us. Become aware of the sensations as they are here and now and treat ourselves with compassion and kindness. Not only we will become happier and healthier ourselves, but we will be able to help others feel so too.

Practice diary: 24th September

When one of my cats brings in a dead rodent I believe they see it as a gift or maybe a triumph of skilful hunting. I view it a lot less favourably.

Most of the time, like everyone else, I am trying to hold it all together. Keeping things familiar and living in a little bubble of my own making; coffee made in the way I preferred, meeting up with people I know well and like (remember that?), sitting in my favourite chair – just the type of ordinary habits we all have in arranging the world around us.

The COVID virus and subsequent lockdown turned things upside down. Our normal way of holding things together was made more awkward and maybe even impossible. The ground was pulled out from under our feet and anxiety levels rose correspondingly. But moments like this, when our world is turned upside down by grief, illness or other sudden unplanned changes, also show how we add extra meaning and concepts onto places and people in our lives, and see them differently from how they actually are. When our bubble bursts, what was important may be less so; equally, what was seemingly a dull part of the day can now be seen as crucial.

A mindfulness practice can be a fantastic tool at junctures like these. The practice of letting go, of seeing feelings and thoughts arise and pass is just the preparation needed to notice and pay attention to the fluid and interconnected nature of things and events that lies behind the fixed labels we like to place on them. Such a looser view can also allow a freedom and even joy for life that wasn’t there previously.

It might even help me be less disgusted at the rodents my cats bring in. Maybe.

Practice diary: 23rd September

I may be lying around on the sofa a lot at the moment but my mind is still instinctively doing laps and circuits.

My life long habit of mindlessly chasing or avoiding stimuli isn’t going away any time soon it would appear. Getting to the fridge, having opened the door and my hand inside before I have even realised what i am doing let alone why. Not noticing the taste of my favourite coffee because I am busy scrolling through twitter. Walking to the shop and going straight past the beautiful autumn leaves on the grass in the park. And there’s many many more examples of this behaviour I could have mentioned too.

The ever so true cliche about having TIAs is that they are a warning, a shot across the bows. A warning to not take your body for granted or to assume your health will always be just so. Today’s autopilot way of living (‘relentless multitasking’ I called it yesterday) can leave us ungrateful and more than slightly ignorant of what is going on both in and around our bodies. It’s not that being on autopilot can’t be useful and indeed often necessary, but we also need to stop and listen to what our bodies are saying, breathe in how the lavender is smelling and where the mind is in the middle of all this.

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.