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!

Practice diary: 1st October

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

Practice diary: 30th September

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.

Practice diary: 29th September

Part 1

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)

Practice diary: 28th September

I heard a golfer* describe preparing for a crucial put by saying “I couldn’t think anymore about it or I’d have wondered about every blade of grass, and that would have just been distracting.”

The same goes for mindfulness. It can be a complex topic if you so wish, but ultimately it must be simple. Know the body. Know the breath. Know the feelings. Know the mind and its objects.”

Or as I read a renowned Buddhist** describe it “Sit and know you are sitting and all of reality will be revealed to you.”

(* Martin Kaymer)

(** Anagarika Munindra)

Practice diary: 27th September

I’ve loved getting older. I bristle when people tell teenagers or those in their twenties “these are the best years of your life.” What a depressing way of looking at your time on this Earth. I like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve become a little wiser.

Something Ive come to know slowly over time is the effect of different places and rooms in my house. For instance, if it’s the weekend or a holiday and I’m staying in, then I am best not stocking up on biscuits or chocolate. Because if I’m spending 48 hours in close proximity to a packet of chocolate biscuits, I know it will be long gone before the second day and I will be pondering buying resupplies by Sunday or maybe earlier.

Similarly, reading anything other than the lightest or shortest of text cannot be done on the sofa. My lounge life is set up to fulfil my desire for distraction. On the coffee table sit the clutch of black remotes that control: bluetooth speaker, tv, satellite tv (2) and DVD player. Then there is also a laptop nearby, phone and a tablet. So, you know, I am in touch digitally you could say.

So I have an armchair situated out of reach of these various magic boxes to which I transfer in order to read. Similarly, I have set up my meditation space in the bedroom, away from all the gadgets, sugary items and other enchantments. And it’s in a corner of the room I only use for this purpose. Maybe one day my mindfulness practice will be strong enough to sit amongst all the accessible sensory attractions and distractions, but for now the wisdom of age tells me to escape a little and meditate there instead.

Practice diary: 26th September

There needs to be a balance between being and doing. In normal 21st century life much more value is of course placed on the latter. At first I thought going totally against this trend, sliding into days free of structure and allowing whatever arises to be there was the best way to get better. But sitting around not doing much wasn’t really pushing my recuperation along. I felt as if I was dawdling through it. I needed some structure to enable better progress – my body needed a stronger emphasis on doing.

As a secondary school teacher I prefer to get my students learning by listening and doing. I am not a fan of ‘finding out for yourself’ when it comes to teaching children geography. I plan my lessons so that firstly I describe and explain features, processes and/or ideas. Then the pupils will do some work on them to hopefully embed what they have learnt. After that I check to see how well they have learnt (by questioning, marking, assessments et al) and if that has all worked well, we will move onto the next set of features, processes and ideas. So in the school classroom I oversee learning that is much more ‘doing’ than ‘being’.

On a mindfulness course the participants are encouraged to experience for themselves and to learn from this experience. Over time they will hopefully become more trusting of the being mode and less reliant on our 21st century worship of doing. When I started as a mindfulness teacher I had to adjust to this approach as my school teaching background was so different. But I also came to realise that whilst I and the participants should stop to work with what came up in the moment, I myself would also need to keep an eye on the program as a whole. It was not a question of one method at the complete expense of the other.

I think practicing mindfulness gives allows more reflection on this doing and being balance. It allowed me to notice and change my way of living. Over the week since I have put into action my meditating/ walking/ gardening/ meditating again regime I have begin to feel much healthier, happier and positive about myself. I think this readjustment and the associated change to being more mindful when I am active has sped up my recovery and improved how I feel about myself..

At the risk of being a little pompous, Carl Jung described the ever changing balance I am aspiring to better than I have here. He said “Learn your theories well, so you can put them aside when you touch the living soul.”

Practice diary: 25th September

I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had to get a doctor’s note to cover absence from work before.

So when I rang a week before term started I was uncertain what to say to prove I deserved my GP’s written permission. He had seen me whilst I had been properly ill. I wasn’t faking it and I knew he was a considerate man. Nevertheless I was anxious enough about the conversation to have had a few phrases written down next to me on the sofa for when he rang that afternoon.

Two minutes after he’d rang the call was over. “I think you’ll need a month at first. Does that sound okay to you?’ I was a little bit stunned. I believed that incontrovertible proof would have to be accepted before I was granted permission. But instead the GP was simply doing an ordinary part of his job. I wasn’t a special case and he would be making other much more difficult conversations later that day.

My school had also rung earlier that day to check on how I was doing. Amongst all the other palaver and COVID related actions and reactions everyone there is having to deal with, this was a really touching action to take. I was kindly told “What we want is healthy and happy staff. So make sure you are properly better before you come back.” I couldn’t have asked for better support.

What is interesting is the apprehension and guilt I felt about taking time off. I’m still not sure that there is a one identifiable reason for this feeling. It was probably a mixture of factors from the personal to the cultural. Having had time to think and to realise that I am getting better sat at home, I definitely don’t feel that guilt any longer. What I think is important is that we look after ourselves both mentally and physically. The world will not struggle to get by without us if we aren’t at our desk. We aren’t a vital cog in the wheel driving our fellow beings’ survival and happiness. Maybe we should get down from our high horse and not try to martyr ourselves by carrying on when we need to stop. It really is doing us no good at all. Instead it would be better to pause and take stock of what our body is telling us. Become aware of the sensations as they are here and now and treat ourselves with compassion and kindness. Not only we will become happier and healthier ourselves, but we will be able to help others feel so too.

Practice diary: 24th September

When one of my cats brings in a dead rodent I believe they see it as a gift or maybe a triumph of skilful hunting. I view it a lot less favourably.

Most of the time, like everyone else, I am trying to hold it all together. Keeping things familiar and living in a little bubble of my own making; coffee made in the way I preferred, meeting up with people I know well and like (remember that?), sitting in my favourite chair – just the type of ordinary habits we all have in arranging the world around us.

The COVID virus and subsequent lockdown turned things upside down. Our normal way of holding things together was made more awkward and maybe even impossible. The ground was pulled out from under our feet and anxiety levels rose correspondingly. But moments like this, when our world is turned upside down by grief, illness or other sudden unplanned changes, also show how we add extra meaning and concepts onto places and people in our lives, and see them differently from how they actually are. When our bubble bursts, what was important may be less so; equally, what was seemingly a dull part of the day can now be seen as crucial.

A mindfulness practice can be a fantastic tool at junctures like these. The practice of letting go, of seeing feelings and thoughts arise and pass is just the preparation needed to notice and pay attention to the fluid and interconnected nature of things and events that lies behind the fixed labels we like to place on them. Such a looser view can also allow a freedom and even joy for life that wasn’t there previously.

It might even help me be less disgusted at the rodents my cats bring in. Maybe.

Practice diary: 23rd September

I may be lying around on the sofa a lot at the moment but my mind is still instinctively doing laps and circuits.

My life long habit of mindlessly chasing or avoiding stimuli isn’t going away any time soon it would appear. Getting to the fridge, having opened the door and my hand inside before I have even realised what i am doing let alone why. Not noticing the taste of my favourite coffee because I am busy scrolling through twitter. Walking to the shop and going straight past the beautiful autumn leaves on the grass in the park. And there’s many many more examples of this behaviour I could have mentioned too.

The ever so true cliche about having TIAs is that they are a warning, a shot across the bows. A warning to not take your body for granted or to assume your health will always be just so. Today’s autopilot way of living (‘relentless multitasking’ I called it yesterday) can leave us ungrateful and more than slightly ignorant of what is going on both in and around our bodies. It’s not that being on autopilot can’t be useful and indeed often necessary, but we also need to stop and listen to what our bodies are saying, breathe in how the lavender is smelling and where the mind is in the middle of all this.