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 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 nearly as quickly 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 I was in a better place physically to try to get healthier and fitter than six months ago.

I’ve 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 developed a local area superpower. That is I have the ability to make people look sheepish and apologise as soon as they meet me. “Hello. I am sorry but I haven’t been practicing 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 that 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, but 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; that you are the only one getting distracted by thoughts of what might be for tea and the holey socks of the person in front of you, but the reality is that we are all imperfect pretty well 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 like all mental events do. And then 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.

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 were eating 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.

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.

No definitions

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.”

Viktor Frankl

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.

Slow walking, Mindful walking

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.