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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This new box of 30 ‘meditation cards’ for children to use arrived this week and I very much like the first look of it. Each of the card ls has an animal (Singular Salmon or Brave Butterfly for example) or a natural feature (Hurricane, Starry Night are two) as a title. They also have three simple to follow steps and a key phrase. All this means children will easily be able to connect with what they are being asked to do. Hopefully then, if they are presented in a right way by a skilled and kind guide the benefits could be huge.
I shall be employing these with my classes as soon as I can. This pack looks like an excellent addition to the tools available to children’s mindfulness teachers.
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?