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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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.
An old old friend rang me today. He was my best man when I married. That kind of old friend.
We don’t talk often, though we both wish we did. I used to find this painful but I’ve learnt that the quality when we do connect floods the silent months between the love we have. It’s not a consequence of the mere time of our friendship that has created this; those memories of having and losing girlfriends, or the mud and leaking tents of Glastonbury festivals from the mid 80’s or any of those other half recalled events. It is that we had shared values and dreams back then and we retain them now.
We hadn’t talked for a long enough time recently that he was unaware I had been ill. So immediately on finding out, this morning, he rang me and over the next hour asked questions and gave advice in a manner that no one else could. He spotted the essence of my reflections and thoughts. He could see and iterate the beliefs behind how I have been thinking. He was easily able to wisely advise me on what else I should do or what else I might be better leaving out. The way he has always tried to live I have never found less than inspiring and hearing what he is doing amongst the craziness of 2020 encouraged me further.
So all I am trying to say is look after those wise people in your life and care for the ones whose values echo and mirror yours. And on the off chance that anyone who considers themselves young is reading this I’d recommend having a slow look around you and taking note of the kind ones in your social circle and promise yourself never to lose their telephone number.
(Part 2 tomorrow)