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: 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!

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.

A mindfulness practice for our Coronavirus times

The recent big changes in all our circumstances has brought uncertainty and anxiety for everyone. More than usual maybe, our thoughts and emotions may run away with us and leave us confused and upset.

This brief mindfulness practice is offered as a way of dropping in to the present moment; noticing our fears and concerns and then maybe letting go of them as well.

Before starting it you should find yourself a quietish place and a chair in which you can ‘sit well’. However the practice goes for you, see it as a time in which you have spent looking after your own well being; your mental and your physical health. There is no right way to feel doing this practice – whatever arises for you is just how it is in this moment. So if possible you should not judge the time you spend sitting as either good or bad.

If you have any questions before or after following these guidelines then please do email me at philip@trustingmind.co.uk

Mindfulness of breath and body

The First Free Women

I’ve never reviewed a book of poems before, let alone one that is ‘the world’s oldest collection of women’s literature’. But as soon as this was delivered I was picking it up daily to read or reread or re-reread a poem. This is without doubt an inspiring collection, oozing with both courage and compassion. These no nonsense lines of early, early Buddhist verse were written by the very first women to practice meditation. They are all anyone could want in honest encouragement in what it is like practicing mindfulness and meditation; how it is frequently seriously difficult but also how it can be fantastically rewarding for both ourselves and others.

There are stories of unimaginable struggle:

do you remember when disease came to your family,

you were the only one to survive?

and

A life of debts I could never repay

pushing in on all sides

like the weight of the sea

The more you read these poems, the more the change in living conditions but the disappointingly familiar struggles for women become clearer and clearer.

But most strongly you come away with an understanding of the immeasurable potential there is in all of us, whatever our present situation.

And so this is an uplifting, barefacedly-honest poetry collection that talks of resilience and joy and of letting your mind go…… its well worth your time.