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.”
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.
We all have those times, the times when the busy-ness envelops and fills us and there seems to be no time to take even a single breath. This has happened to me recently. So waking on Saturday morning I decided to be in NO RUSH AT ALL. Instead of my usual sitting meditation, I opted to do something different and walked out the front door having no particular aim or route in mind, apart from to take my time. Walking with no goal is a luxury difficult to pursue during the week and so it is one I love to cultivate and indulge in at other times. Personally, I find slow walking can bring me less clarity than sitting practice. But slow (as opposed to mindful) walking has a looseness to it that means it is often easier for me to blend practice and ‘normal life’. Even early on a Saturday morning there are people and events to contend with, so that just walking mindfully is difficult. So I can be aware of the feeling in my feet for a few steps but then be distracted by having to step aside to allow a man and his dog to pass and or by the noise fumes of a bus pulling away. Only sometime later being able to return to more mindful walking. However, this mix can lessen the feeling of “getting it wrong” that so often taints my sitting practice. But slow walking isn’t a cop out and a lesser activity than others. I find it helps increases my ability to sense my own surroundings. This morning I walked toward the town centre and so I was noticing features and details I have usually passed by in ignorance.
There was a tree half down from this week’s winds
And there was goal/ basketball net play area
Slow walking can bring a focus and appreciation to what is around us. We can feel happier in our selves and our environment. It sometimes heightens awareness of our senses and adds an excitement to our moment-by-moment experience. But what I really like is I when I find mindful walking having a longer and more noticeable impact on the rest of my day. After slow walking this morning and without planning to, I was just aware of the fall of my feet on the kitchen lino and later of the sight of a female blackbird shuffling on the garden fence. Slow walking enables us to better watch both our thoughts and people whistle past us. We may well see ourselves and our limitations and restrictions reflected back to us in those figures. Maybe then we might develop a little more empathy for other people’s packed and stress-filled lives as well as our own.
It is the pausing and deliberate deceleration that allows attention to be more focussed and then awareness and mindfulness to arise. Mindfulness is there always, but we have allowed it to become buried under all those other thoughts; raking over our past or planning our future. Slow walking can help us reconnect with our own experience in this moment especially if it is combined with a regular sitting practice of mindfulness. This in turn can bring contentment, a feeling of gratitude for what we have and more empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings.
I do like this short video from Happify that explains how mindfulness, while not being a panacea for all the world’s and your own problems, can help us deal with the negative events and emotions in our lives. What it omits to emphasises however is how mindfulness also enables us to notice more clearly the positive and wonderful parts of our day and our life. Mindfulness is also hear for the good stuff.
“Full Catastrophic Living” by Jon Kabat Zinn is so frequently described as landmark or classic or masterpiece that there is almost an obligation to have it on your shelf if you are at all interested in secular mindfulness. But then it’s size at 600+ pages means it can be left untouched. So maybe, like a brief history of time, it becomes a book that more often than not we feel is mocking us it gathers dust on the shelf.
However, it is worth it and although I never read it in the order the chapters I laid out, I keep coming back to it again and again. Out of all the sections, the part on “The attitudinal foundations of mindfulness” is my favourite, even if their name is somewhat of a mouthful. As a taster, to tempt you to buy it (or take it down from the shelf) hear they are summed up in three ways:
Firstly a simple list of the 7 attitudes Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends to adopt:
Secondly, (and the best option even if they are called the 9 attitudes for some reason ) is this excellent video of the man himself outlining and describing them.
Finally the 3rd option is some brief notes and ideas I have written for each one. All the good ideas themselves come from the book or from an excellent discussion at the Salisbury Jamyang Buddhist group. I have just jotted them down here.
Oh! the constant stream of judgment, labeling and categorising that goes on in our heads; everyone of our thoughts and emotions that arise come with a blind reaction which then leads to an automatic stream of thoughts, which often end up having very little basis at all in actual fact. So we should step back and, as best we can, suspend judgment and simply observe whatever comes up.
“Patience is a kind of wisdom” is a lovely phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn. We try to give ourselves the room to be with whatever comes up – after all, whatever is happening right now is all that there can possibly be in this present moment. And impatience for something else cannot change it one iota . There’s no point wishing away this moment for a better one in the future, which is why patience is a good counter balance for an over active or easily bored mind.
Try to see things as if for the first time. Mark Williams talks about ‘habit releasers’. Having a freshness to what happens can help us avoid old negative habits that maybe we weren’t fully aware of. This of course is easier said than done, but making simple changes in our daily life like sitting in a different seat on the bus or walking a different road to work can help us have a brief insight into the power of beginner’s mind. Try it.
All this teaching, the books we read, the videos we click on, only show us the way. We need to have faith in how things feel for us. Try it out and if it doesn’t work then fair do’s. Once we can trust ourselves more and own basic goodness more we will not only “enhance the loveliness within ourselves” (Christina Feldman), but we will also find we are able to the same with other people.
Striving means a rejection of the present. And so there is no aim in meditation or mindfulness except to be who we already are and where we already are, which of course we are doing anyway. If we are angry we pay attention to being angry, if we are judging we pay attention to our judgements, if we are happy we pay attention to that. This non striving allied with patience will work. Trust it.
There is a lot of debate over this word. I know a mindfulness teacher who works with cancer patients who avoids using it at all and I can understand why. However, I think acceptance is more of a willingness to see things as they really are rather than a passive resignation to the bad and unfair stuff in our lives. On the cushion we do this by not trying to be something else, somewhere else or someone else in each moment.
If we can go to sleep we already know how to let go. Each night we let go of our body and mind before falling asleep. See that angry thought? Let it go. See that desire? What happens when we let it go?
If we find it difficult to let something go then we can instead focus on its opposite; what does it feel like to grasp onto something?
This is taken straight from Tchich Nhat Hanh and his book ‘Silence’ which I highly recommend.
“The practice of Mindfulness is very simple. You stop, you breathe, you still your mind. You come home to yourself and come home to the here and now in every moment.”
Not only is this occasionally my own experience, but it reminds me of the dot b practice I teach to young people. This comes in four parts, though I only actually teach the first three as I am not skilled enough to do the last step; I leave that to my participants.
Notice your feet
Pay attention to your breath
That the teaching I try to share mirrors what one of the world’s ‘guiding lights (Times Literary Supplement) on Mindfulness is saying I find both reassuring and marvellously uplifting.
Why is there suffering? Why is life so crap? Why is it such a cruel world? I just want to be happy.
Years ago, so the story goes, a woman hears of a wise old guru in a far off foreign land. So she travels many, many days to see the teacher. When she reaches the guru she says “I am fed up with my life and all the discontent in it. Please tell me the secret of a happy life.”
“Good judgement.” states the guru.
“That seems a bit vague. How do I gain this good judgement?”
My own practice has always influenced the attitude I try to bring to my teaching. Mindfulness gives me a context within which all parts of my job can fit. No matter how awful the day, or the year, or the pressure, or the exhaustion, there is an option to be aware of the wider context of each situation. No matter how excellent the lesson, or the moment, or the pupils’ learning, mindfulness means there is more chance of noticing the experience and being grateful for it.
The space mindfulness can create allows the opportunity for a broader, more honest and accurate awareness to arise. So whatever the situation: good or bad, stressful or easy, a moment of mindfulness brought on by regular long-term practice of meditation can make you happier, more grateful or, at least, less upset. Subsequently, this wisdom will allow more compassion and kindness to arise foryourself and those around you.
In the last 5 years I have started to teach mindfulness to pupils within our school curriculum and in the last two years to groups of staff within the academy trust. Teaching mindfulness in the classroom is a fundamentally different way of working. I am offering my pupils an experience and an approach to day-to-day life that they can try. I set ‘home practice’ not homework, which of course is impossible to take in and mark anyhow. But if it doesn’t work for them, no bother – as long as they have given it a go.
There is no doubt that the mindfulness course I teach is having an impact on the pupils. Each year between 65% and 75% of pupils have said that they are likely or very likely to use mindfulness in the future. This year, when I have started to ask students to write down an example of when they have used mindfulness, the responses were fabulous. The responses ranged from the immense, “When my granddad was ill in hospital I used mindfulness and became more okay with my sadness” to the mundane “I was worried about my Science test but after I did some finger breathing I just got on with it.”
In the MBSR courses I have run for staff the reactions have been equally positive. But I am always wary of claiming a measurable impact from mindfulness. I do not want people to come to mindfulness or meditation wanting to achieve a goal.
“If we are meditating for wellbeing, we are telling ourselves we don’t have that well being; and so we perpetuate a state of deficiency.” (Gelong Thubten from “A monk’s guide to happiness”)
Instead I believe that mindfulness and meditation are providing children and adults with the opportunity to be happier in their lives and kinder to those around them and also to themselves.
First things first, you don’t have to have a mindfulness teacher because all you need to know is
Breathe in and know you are breathing in; breathe out and know you are breathing out.
That is it. So yes, you could say anyone who is a mindfulness teacher is a fraud because as far as I can see all the guidance you need is in that phrase. Yet nearly every mindfulness teacher you meet or can listen to will openly state they are unable to follow that instruction the whole time or probably even half the time.
So attending a class or following a course will help you see that mindfulness is also ‘present moment recollection’ as Christine Feldman described it. Just this breath and this moment…. but then this breath has passed and this moment is gone and you have to start again or, if you are fortunate, carry on. Within “breathe in and know you are breathing in; breathe out and know you are breathing out.” is a lifetime’s experience and wisdom. Mindfulness whilst simple and clear is also not to be summed up in a pretty meme or statement. Those are just the start.
So being in a class or following a course allows you to practice mindfulness in many moments and the practice is made that much easier by having a teacher who can help you help yourself and being with other participants to let you know you aren’t the only one feeling these things and thinking those thoughts.
The mindfulness teacher can only be a guide, it is the mindfulness that will teach you again and again in each and every moment you are aware of.
At the heart of mindfulness is the truth that it is the teaching not the teacher that matters. We practice paying attention to the breath, to the body, to the feeling and to the mind and then apply that to the ups and downs, the stresses and strains of your own day to day experiences. So over time we come to realise that we have to “practice taking responsibility for ourselves.” We have to trust ourselves.
That we have no one to rely on but ourselves, that the answers are inside of and not out there somewhere, may sound liberating at first, but it can also be an unnerving and frightening thought. As we practice more though, it becomes clearer that the only way to do be with the responsibility of this truth is simply to trust the practice; pause, notice the breath in and the breath out, be aware of the gap maybe between one breath and the next. Trust that this is it that this is all that is needed. A trusting mind will lead to a trusting mind…..