Practice diary: 6th October

Don’t overcomplicate mindfulness!

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.

And there you go; mindfulness in a minute!

Practice diary: 5th October

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.

Slowing down mindfulness

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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.

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.