Coming back

After a six month enforced lay off, I went for a run yesterday. Now I’m no Mo Farah; I had only been running for a couple or months before having to stop, so slightly dispirited I went back to week one of the BBC couch to 5k app. Once more I was listening to Michael Johnson telling me not to run too fast (!) as I plodded around the park. It was a disappointing to have no choice but to start over again. When I run I usually avoid eye contact with the properly dressed, skinnier, more lithe and faster joggers. My old sweatshirt, generic trainers and paunch feel like no match for the spring in every one of their steps.

But nevertheless I set off, albeit apprehensively. Yet almost immediately my body remembered what it felt like to run and specifically to try to begin a running habit and nearly as quickly noticed how this time it felt okay with what was happening. “You’ve got this Philip. You’ve done this before and survived.” This was not a foreign country to my muscles and joints; it was recognised ground. The exercise I had done earlier in the year was still there somewhere in me. I am not saying I flew around the park, nor that I did not ache in strange and multiple places for the next 24 hours. But I knew what was going on and was in a better place physically to try to get healthier and fitter than six months ago.

Ive been teaching and guiding mindfulness to adults for a few years now, so when i walk around town I meet people who have been on a course with me. And now seemingly I have a local area superpower. That is I have the ability tome people look sheepish and apologies as soon as they meet me. “Hello. I am sorry but i haven’t been practicing my mindfulness much recently” they mumble to their shoes. And there is a similarity to me avoiding the gaze of proper runners to people looking at their shoes when they see me. The idea that we aren’t doing as well as we should, that we failing to reach a standard that other people are easily realising and surpassing even is present in so many of us.

So an irregular runner believes they are less than other exercisers. Someone who used to practice mindfulness thinks about sitting on their cushion but doesn’t because they believe they are no good at it anyways. Someone who is practicing mindfulness notices their mind has wondered and immediately believes they have got it wrong and that not only is this a bad session but more, they are a bad practitioner and not good at being mindful. Now I would say that each person here needs to be encouraged to ignore that eroding inner critic and take their next step, bit of course that is much, much easier typed than done.

The name couch to 5k is a great one. It clearly describes where you probably are and where you would like to get to. Progress is entirely measurable in both minutes and kilometres run. But equally someone who started their running a week before you would remain in front of you throughout the 9 weeks. In this way mindfulness is very different. There isn’t a goal to reach sometime in the future. You just do mindfulness. You may imagine that everyone else practicing in the room with you is perfectly resting in attention on the breath and that you are the only one getting distracted by thoughts of what might be for tea and the holes insects of the person in front of you, but the reality is that we are all imperfect pretty all the time. Which is why mindfulness is not about stopping the mind from wandering, but instead to simply notice when it does. This means when you see your mind is not on your breath or your chosen anchor spot, that moment right there is being mindful, is realisation.That is what it is all about, so simply notice “my mind is involved in a thought about planning tea.” And then gently, without any rush, let the thought go. Don’t force it away. You can be aware that it is still there or that this thought is also passing or has passed like all mental events do. And when it has passed, simply return to the anchor spot and be mindful of that. Every time you come back, you come back with more experience, with more wisdom. A mind returning to awareness, like a body to exercise, recognises what is going on a little bit better every time it does. Good habits are being formed.

So be aware of that inner critic. It isn’t doing you any favours. Don’t let it stop doing what you want or what is good for you all just because of a totally misplaced sense of inferiority. Additionally, it is mindfulness the self judgement is about then kindly and gently notice that is what your mind is paying attention to. Well done you are aware of your thoughts and feelings. They will pass.

Quiet Tuesdays

In times of hardship or stress people have a tendency to cut themselves off from others. Such self isolation compounds the original discomfort by making someone feel like they are suffering alone – and maybe even that they are the only person that feels like that. In the longer term this can lead to guilt about the false idea that they themselves are responsible for their own unpleasant feelings and emotions. Quite clearly in the present virus situation of 2020, the broader necessary and imposed isolation will compound this of pain and low self-worth.

Most people are lucky enough to be living with access to virtual connection. Whilst it cannot take the place of face to face communication, online linking and community is able to provide vital support for us all: we are not alone, we are not different from everyone else because we suffer. I believe that a sense of togetherness can greatly increase people’s well being. A sharing of experience is a lifting of the burden. This is why I am starting Quiet Tuesdays; for my own and anyone else’s benefit who wants to spend 20 to 30 minutes a week sitting mindfully together. We can help each other improve our health. Rob Brandsma (from ‘Mindfulness Teaching Guide) talks about how such a group can create resonance whereby our individual experience links up with other people’s. This can lead to increased group wisdom when we realise that there are many more possibilities than we could have realised on our own. Also we can see that our difficulties aren’t personal; that they are part of a wider shared human experience. Through this understanding a third benefit of togetherness is created.

I aim to create a regular dependable place for quiet and space in people’s week; somewhere to slow down, stop and notice. The longer term vision is that this session will grow into a small community of mutual support, born out of shared practice in a shared place. This is not a course and there will be little teaching. The most important activity will guided mindfulness; so the time will be spent primarily on experiential learning.  I chose the word ‘quiet’ but, to be honest, only just rejected ‘silent’. Maybe over time, depending on how and if the community develops, it might become beneficial to have brief discussions about the experience of practice in the group. But to forge a solid start, I believe it is best we simply practice together.  People are welcome to drop in to sessions, but the deepest and widest benefits will come from committing to such a practice and community on a regular basis. The changes that mindfulness can bring will certainly come but they will be more deeply and profoundly affective by putting in the energy over the long term.

Practice diary: 11th October

I have said it before, but people just presume I will always be mindful because I teach mindfulness. They are wrong.

Over the weekend the heater for the shower sprung a leak. The ceiling on the floor below developed some brownish patches and the cupboard the white box was in was drenched. The house electrics were also tripping. Now I may be the world’s least skilled DIY practitioner. If I am not I am in the top 3. When an event like leaking dripping sealed white boxes and randomly turning off lights and fridge and wifi happens I feel terror and dread and overwhelming sense of uselessness. Those negative emotions ate away at me and I could feel a fighting turning sensation in my chest.

Twenty four hours later and a lovely and dear friend has sealed off the leak l,showed me how the electrics can be sorted and explained which profession I can ring on Monday morning to hopefully finish the job. I don’t feel those sensations now. It has all passed.

To understand how my mind and body got so filled with properly unpleasant feelings, thoughts and emotions I need to look all the back to where the feelings began. This was when my mind contacted the thought “The shower heater is leaking.” That is of course for anyone a bad event; an inconvenience at best and large cost and disruption at worst. If I had been mindful of that negative feeling right there and then at the start and seen it for what it was: unpleasant, maybe even painful – but also temporary, then I might have been able to detach from that initial sensation. In fact, detaching would have worked anywhere along the production line of negative reactions and feelings, all the way up the feeling of dread and self hatred. Mindfulness can create a stepping back from an automatic chain of reaction and allow space for a wiser response to occur.

I always make sure to tell a group starting an 8 week course that it won’t be ‘skipping through fields of daisies and ice creams’ for everyone if they practice mindfulness regularly. Alas, no matter how many courses or retreats you go on mindfulness won’t stop the bad stuff happening. But mindfulness can work to stop the so called ‘second dart’ of painful reactive feelings occurring ,even if first darts are still inevitable in our lives.

Now I am off to try and start taking some of my own advice.

Practice diary: 6th October

Don’t overcomplicate mindfulness!

Follow these instructions – allowing 10 seconds for each sentence

Simply sit or stand still in a comfortable position and keep your back tall, but relaxed. Feel your feet on the ground. Know you are sitting (or standing). Be aware of any sounds that are audible. When you breathe in, know you are breathing in. When you breathe out know you are breathing out.

And there you go; mindfulness in a minute!

Practice diary: 5th October

A lot of people come to mindfulness classes because they want to deal better with their anxiety or poor mental health in their life. In my experience people who complete a mindfulness course come away with that; they have the skills and opportunity to see things and events in a different light. And from my experience I have begun to see typical way in which this happens

Firstly, the participant begins to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that they were previously ignoring, pushing away or hadn’t even noticed were there. By coming face to face with their experience and what is arising, a wisdom develops. By seeing what is going on as it is going on during formal practice sessions they move in closer to the workings of their inner world; they see more in more focus the interconnections and causes and effects that create their lives as they lead them. This is a fantastic thing to have done! Mindfulness is beginning to make them wiser.

This embryonic wisdom can also grow out into a greater feeling for the impermanence in day to day life. This is no academic pursuit, it is something that is experienced. One of the simplest activities in the 8 week MBSR course is a reflection on the activities participants do every day and to categorise them as either nourishing or depleting. It is not a question you could ask of people in the early weeks of the course because this experiential understanding has not started to develop then. But mindfulness can generate this wisdom of seeing what is wholesome and what is not in our lives.

And then this wisdom naturally leads to having increased energy and joy, because when someone knows what they need to do to gain more happiness, they will be really keen to do those things! They will be living with more energy and joy. Knowing about this chain from mindfulness to wisdom to energy and joy also gives people a way of noticing how their lives may be changing for the better because of a regular mindfulness practice. Indeed, recognising this development can make us happier again as we see a greater purpose in out day to day living.

And so, from being less happy and maybe even unwell, mindfulness can lead to a wiser and more joyful way of living.

Practice diary: 4th October

I ended yesterday’s post saying I was going to have a slow cup of tea. My good friend Alan asked me later “How did it go?” Well to be honest, I had a few sips and then drifted on to something else. So thanks to his unintended prod I thought I should try again.

Rather than just mindfully drink the tea I decided to note my thoughts and feelings as they arose by saying them out loud. I also recorded myself doing this so I could share them. I doubt anyone will want to read them but I have written out the list and copied it at the bottom of this post.

What I found really interesting is rereading the quote from Tchich Nhat Hanh with an intention of acting upon it and experiencing it, not just thinking about it, I gained a noticeably different understanding of what he said and didn’t say. There is no demand to notice only the cup of tea as you drink it, but rather to drink it ‘reverently’. This takes away the possibility of drinking the tea in the wrong way. It is the same as in an ordinary sitting practice when we are told to return to the breath “without judgement”.

The instruction to drink the tea as if it were the ‘axis of the whole world’ sure is some commitment to mindfulness in the moment. People who have taken an MBSR course will see the similarity with the eating the raisin exercise from the first week. Often when people eat that raisin at such a slow speed they comment after that they noticed much more taste from it. And I can still taste the tea now, an hour after finishing the last mouthful. But this guidance also goes a step further than the MBSR “Only this actual moment is life” is a fantastically empowering statement. Because no matter what has gone before we have this moment; we can be mindful, we can be alive right now as we drink the tea..

That was honestly one of the best mugs of tea I have had in ages. I highly recommend you try driving one in a similar manner. And thank Alan when you do.

Favourite mug/ Hot/ Sipped/ Tongue/ Slurp/ Lingering taste/ Neighbour on the phone/ Wind in the chimney/ Breath/ Thinking of having another sip/ Breath/ Stomach rumbling/ Bigger sip/ Same taste/ I think that’s fish on the mugs and the blue lines are waves/ Water and milk in the tea/ Where do the milk and the tea come from?/ Breath/ After taste/ Slightly easier to touch the mug/ Touch of teeth on tongue/ Bigger sip/ Missed the taste but noticing the after taste/ Thinking about finishing the tea and watching the telly/ Sound of mug on coaster and rumble in stomach/ I like the sound of my neighbour’s voice/ The house is quiet/ Breath/ (I reread the TNH quote on tea drinking)/ What does evenly mean in that quote?/ Autumn/ Looking forward to watching the American football/ Feet on the floor bum on the cushion on the sofa/ Heating is up high enough for me to be in a t-shirt/ Near the end of the mug/ Cant hold the mug still enough so the tea inside stays still/ Cant believe I hadn’t noticed the fish and waves before on the mug/ Maybe flying fish/ I feel as if I’ve drunk a bigger mug of tea than I actually have/ I’ve drunk it quicker I think, I’ve got to the end and its still quite hot/ Teacup sound on coaster

Practice diary: 3rd October

We are a busy culture (part 2). When out walking I am thinking of cooking tea and not seeing the loosening leaves and their changing colours. Watching a favourite film I check my phone and miss a key scene entirely. Looking at the sunset I wonder about putting on a wash and leave the skyline after only a few seconds.

It’s all very well wanting to slow down and open out to experience like I suggested yesterday (see here). But even if I try slowing down the body, the mind keeps speeding away. Just switching off at the push of a button isn’t possible; a longer term solution is needed, with longer term commitment. Now I am not expert enough to know how anything other than the start of this extended project might look and I only know about the first step of this because I read this from Tchich Nhat Hanh in ‘Miracle of Mindfulness’

So not just being slower, but also living this moment – not future ones. Now this is written, I am going to make a cup of tea and see how it goes.

Practice diary: 2nd October

We are a busy culture. When people have arranged to drop in to see me they are often have to work out when they can squeeze half an hour extra time into their day. After work? Before food shopping? On the day the in laws have the children? “They’ve cancelled the meeting Thursday I could do it then.”

The irony of friends looking so much more exhausted than me when I am supposed to be the one off with fatigue is not lost on me. And now, sitting apart from this endless daily melee, I see an advantage to slower living. If you are not in a rush, if you’re living easy like Sunday morning, you’re attention is less likely to be restricted to just your own bubble and more open to what is going on around you. And living like that may allow you to see behind what is happening and develop more patience for how events are unfolding.

So slowing down can make people more patient. Additionally, this may well generate a lovely positive feedback to living a little slower and then life could become all the more connected and enjoyable and people would be kinder. It is easy to see that this loop could also work the other way around, so that our relentless multitasking may well be making us less and less patient and wise with our surroundings. This is why it is so important that we all take a break and set aside some time for doing nothing. Have a great week end!

Practice diary: 1st October

People pull some strange faces when I tell them I have made a playlist on Spotify for my funeral. But I think it is the sensible thing to do.

All this ‘taking it easy’ time I have been fortuitously granted recently has given me the opportunity to think about the next years of my life. Getting ill certainly does make you reflect on your own uninvincibility and I’ve been pondering over four features of this. Firstly, as had already prompted me to start that playlist, I am aware that I will die. It is good to bring this to mind from time to time, not from some sort of morbid wallowing, but to help focus on not wasting the time left. Death may be certain, but the timing of it is out of my control.

Secondly, I am extremely lucky in my present circumstances, so it would be a crying shame if I was to let them slip by or waste them. I already have all the physical comforts and necessities I need right here.

The third and forth features are a pair of ideas about priorities. Knowing what are and what are not the important things to be doing is vital. Prolonged lockdown has made it clearer that it isn’t money or possessions that really matter. There is a Tibetan saying “All that may be wished for will by nature fade to nothing” So eventually what remains is simply the results of what we have done; the impact of our karma.

I read this lovely phrase this week from Joseph Goldstein that seemed to describe for me what I was looking for from all this reflection. He talked about generating “spiritual urgency” and I hope reflecting on these factors will be like giving myself a pep talk to get the mind in order and to focus my efforts and energies in the right direction.

Footnote: to be honest the playlist isn’t really connected with any spiritual endeavours. It is more to do with the fact that I don’t trust anyone else to have as good musical taste as I have. The proof is right here

Practice diary: 30th September

Part 2 (part 1 was yesterday)

It is very easy to be kind to someone.

When I went into hospital it was my ex-wife who, with the aid of one of our children, sorted out a few clothes for me and brought me orange juice to the ward. That she was still able to be thoughtful to me really impressed the children. Seeing mum and dad communicating and being good to each other helps them deal with the separation better I am sure. But many other people have been kind to me over the last couple of months. Just a WhatsApp message will have cheered me up, coming over for a cup of tea and a chat has been fabulous. An offer to drive me somewhere if needed or pick me up from Sainsbury’s after shopping is most appreciated. I have loved it when someone from work rang me to see how I was getting along.

Now this isn’t a not so subtle plea for more visits and lift offers. What I have come to notice is it takes such little effort to make a kind gesture and if we were more aware of this, we would no doubt reach out and be compassionate more often and to more people. Additionally, the ripple effects of your thoughtful action will spread out further than you initially intended. The person you were just kind to is more likely to be kind to someone else, who in turn will have their day brightened and become more likely to help out another person and so on.

The positive energy created by a kind act doesn’t have to spread out, it can rebound back and forth to strengthen friendships and relationships. There is one member of my family who I have known almost my whole life and who has always looked out for and after me. During the last couple of months she has never stopped checking in on me, helping me out, giving me good advice and generally standing by my side the whole way through. Without doubt her kindness and love helped bring out the balance and strength of mind I needed to be face all this with the equanimity it requires.

I am grateful to you all.