Ahh here comes the chance to throw out the old self and design and build a new and improved version. Promises are made to exercise more, eat better, turn off the phone for longer and learn to play the trumpet. By achieving all of this it will be possible to get away from all the painful things in life and then finally happiness will abound.
There is research to show that markers like New Year are the most effective time to set resolutions; the brain is ready and open to see the opportunity for change. But resolutions are often underlain by the assumption we should always be trying to be better than we are now; a message that also means ‘what we are at the moment is not good enough’. Seeing it like this the desire for change risks being an aggressive act toward ourselves, bringing on low self esteem and self hate. As my friend Polly said
“Yoga and motherhood have shown me the goal should be to do less and to be more open and accept all feelings as they arise so they don’t pop up at a less convenient time.”
I recently heard someone describe good luck as needing a little bit of a push sometimes, whereas bad luck is a ruder god as it comes crashing in, unexpected and uninvited. I think the same theory applies to resolutions and targets; for the good stuff to happen we need to create the right space and balance for it enter. Instead of shutting down the unpleasantness and pain, we can open to it and acknowledge it. Often our neurosis and wisdom come from the same place, so if we try deny the former we will also be alienating ourselves from the latter. In this way, Pema Chodron describes meditation as
seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have and the people who are in our lives. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness.
Pema Chodron from “The Wisdom of No Escape”
And so with this New Year, or this new month or new week or new day or new hour or even with this new breath we can simply stop and notice how it is for us right now. When this wisdom develops then the ability to nurture the good in our lives will have the space to grow. We will have given ‘good luck’ the little push it required.
In praise of my local park, a perfect place for all of us around here.
I like to walk in it. It is perfect for running. It’s my route to the local shop. Its my route into town. I meet friends for a cup of tea there. I sit on the bench and read. When my good pal died a few years ago, I found a bench no one walked passed and I could sit and remember him. Most weeks I play tennis there. Sometimes I just need 10 minutes out the house and in the open air and breath – and it’s down to the park I go. The trees there are a giant show of steadiness and change throughout the year.
I also enjoy greeting the dog walkers and their pets, seeing the children in the play area and parents chattering as they push the swings or stand at the bottom of the slide. I like to pause at the weekend football matches where the slightly less than fully fit players huff and curse their way around the pitch.It was a shame when the bowls club closed down, but it’s delightful now to see a martial arts group practising on the flat lawn every Saturday morning. My less charitable side finds it more entertaining than it should do watching dogs tearing around chasing squirrels and never getting close, not even once.
It was during lockdown that more of us started noticing the park,; not that was empty beforehand, but we became drawn to this place more often and in greater numbers. It was everyone’s outlet, an open area for all where we could come and do our own individual thing, but do it along with, amongst and beside everybody else. The park became more precious. And all you had to do was walk in through one of the squeaky gates to benefit from it. So I began to understand how one place could begin to take on a spiritual importance for its local community.
I couldn’t say with any honesty that I enjoy running, but it does give me a sense of satisfaction and, if I am honest, smugness as well. Whilst I was certainly pleased to complete the couch to 5k app a month ago, I feel more gratification that I am running or that I go running, than any goal I may achieve doing it. My original motivation was to be healthier, to be trimmer and slimmer, to breathe less heavily walking up hills, maybe even to live longer and with less illness. I bought some scales a year ago and was genuinely frightened by where the spinner stopped. I’ve had a few hospital visits recently too. So mortality’s foul breath is right up in my nose to be sure. Additionally, the thought of having to go return shopping for another pair of trousers the next size up was a self embarrassment lurking like a troll under a bridge in the back of mind.
I began to wonder what it was that had made me start running now. Let’s be honest, I’ve been out of condition, over weight and wheezy walking up hills for quite some time now. But something had made me finally lace up some new trainers and plod around my local park. There was some reason that had prompted my widening backside off the sofa at last and away from the fridge and out the front door. Half way around a run last week, as I struggled to the top of Hudson’s field, I began to work it out. I was running now because of the encouragement I had received from other people; most of whom do not even know they have encouraged me. It may have been just a word, or an online reply. Some people showed me by their own example how much satisfaction and self worth could be generated by completing a (half) marathon. Quite a few not only commented ‘good for you’ when I said I had started, but also checked in on my progress a couple of weeks later. There were two or three who had started running near the same time and we shared our progress and challenges with each other.
And there you have it. No one made any sacrifice or great effort to give me this encouragement. But when it was offered, it was done so with no expectation of return or reciprocation; presented to me outside of any exchange system. When I thought about this I began to see what an incredibly generous and selfless gift encouragement is. There is no tax break coming at the end of the year, no return on the investment, nor any presumption of a thank you card in the post. Instead I was boosted and supported by people who simply wanted me to do well, to be happy, to be healthy and content. Encouragement, it would seem, is full of grace and a most simple heart felt gift to give. Now that I have received it my intention is to hand it out in bundles too.
We didn’t sign up for this when we took the job – laptop on the kitchen table or maybe on a desk in the spare room. Work hours leaking into home time. And the isolation, oh my the isolation. There are many new problems to face right now and no way of knowing when it will end. As a result, it is vital that we try to treat ourselves gently and go easy when our mind starts to rant and rave. Taking deliberate breaks and breathing spaces in the day to notice our physical, mental and emotional feelings, while not judging ourselves for whatever those sensations are can be a real help. So I have recorded a short and simple mindfulness practice (see the bottom of the post) that I hope will allow people the opportunity to pause in this way and notice a breath or two. I imagined that this could be done after a period of being sat down working, but really this could be used at any time in the day from waking up to going to bed.
If you find it useful please do let me know.
p.s. The photo is the view I get from work that I am missing 🙂
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 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.
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.
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.