Friday, 3 July 2020

Grand Narratives (I)

If you were to consider what ‘mindfulness’ means to you, what would show up in your mind? If you were to reflect deeply on the nature and purpose of ‘practice’, what might you see? What informs your identity (assuming that you identify) as a meditator or practitioner? What are the ideas, imaginings or mythologies you have internalised about mindfulness? Such enquiries disclose crucial information about how your practice will unfold.

Modern formulations of mindfulness tend to revolve around the deliberate cultivation of open-hearted awareness in order to facilitate less reactivity to what is happening in the moment. Traditional formulations are more nuanced (read more on that here and here). What all formulations have in common is they are embedded in assumptions and narratives about the nature of reality and identity and, by association, ideas about how to live well. 

Mindfulness practice, in this regard, is a starting point from which you make a journey into existential territory. Where you go, with what aim in mind, is largely down to you. Somewhere in the mix will be ideas, views and perspectives you have internalised. A key task of practice is to become more acutely aware of how you are being guided, consciously and unconsciously, by these. 

Raw Materials

To do this work, you need to take into account the era in which you live. Bear in mind that mindfulness in the West is still in its infanthood, unsure of its place in the larger scheme of things and not yet fully known to itself. How it develops and what it grows into remain to be seen. This is exciting and offers great potential. But it can also impart a kind of youthful confusion to practitioners seeking clear waymarks for their journey.

In the meantime, what elements from the primal matter of modern mindfulness might we isolate and inspect to assist us with our enquiries? Obviously, there is the Buddhist influence. Buddhism, however, is notoriously hard to pin down. It encompasses a vast swathe of traditions, beliefs and practices. On top of that, not unlike mindfulness, it is still in the early stages of rooting itself – in this case, in a strangely individualized, materialist culture it had little knowledge of only a handful of decades ago. For these reasons, Buddhism can be difficult to make sense of.

What we could usefully identify, however, are the main ways in which Buddhism and, through it, mindfulness have melded with pre-existing ideas and tendencies in western culture. Four stand out: science, psychotherapy, romanticism and religion (particularly the theistic, Judeo-Christian variety). If you were to look deeply into your own psychology, might you find traces of one or more of these quietly shaping and steering beliefs about your practice?

Hidden in Plain Sight

I would suggest that certain western assumptions and cultural biases can also be gleaned from the nature and content of contemporary mindfulness training programmes. While courses vary, as do different teachers’ ‘takes’ on practice, patterns are evident (partly thanks to the western scientific tendency to publish copious amounts of research-generated data in the search for measurable truths). Examples include:
  • An implicit belief in the individualistic nature of practice (i.e. each of us are separate, self-directing psycho-physical ‘units’).
  • Framing human suffering as a problem that can be fixed or eradicated. 
  • Elevating the importance of disengaging and stepping back from thoughts in order to better regulate emotions. 
  • Emphasising formal meditation as a means to cultivating tranquil states over other possibilities (e.g. insight or ethical sensibility). 
  • Viewing the shift from the conceptual to the perceptual as an end in itself (i.e. it leads to no specific knowledge or discoveries).
  • A tendency to reify the ‘present moment’ and an enchantment with experiences of ‘being’.

This is a partial list – one, no doubt, informed by some of my own biases and assumptions. I am not suggesting any of the above are right or wrong, good or bad. What they point to, however, are some of the ways in which western scientific, materialist, allopathic-medical, psychological and romanticist beliefs have merged with much older ideas about mindfulness. 

Might reflecting on these allow us humble practitioners, finding our own way, greater glimpses of how such assumptions harmonise or collide with our own preconceived views and opinions and, in so doing, shape our experience? Better to be aware than not, right?

In the next post, I will suggest two very different analogies for how we might situate mindfulness practice in our lives. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Noble Action

Living in awareness cuts through erroneous divisions the human mind makes between ‘me’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Anxiety loses its primary foothold when we learn to trust and be trustworthy. We can relax. As we come to know more of our innate connectedness to other beings, we are more considerate in how we treat them.

We incline to activities that align with our values, rather than being swayed by fads and fashions. We reflect on how we make a livelihood and the impact it has on others. We see the sense in rejecting association or involvement with destructive behaviour. When we witness mistreatment, cruelty and injustice, we more readily take a stand against them.

Taking Care of Life

Active engagement with this troublesome world is as much part of ‘practice’ as appreciating its joys and wonders. True mindful living is not reducible to watching the breath on a meditation cushion; it means being dynamically in the world, with eyes wide open.

Such a comprehensive ‘taking care’ of life is what links mindfulness organically to friendliness – the willingness to move close to, respect and connect with. To be discerning about what we consume, physically and mentally, and thoughtful about what we produce, in both word and deed, is to approach life with open hands and an open heart.

Becoming more discriminating in how we take in the world, and cognizant of what we put into it, leads to a more nourishing experience for everyone. Mindfulness takes the form of a rapport with other beings and greater tolerance of the vicissitudes of life. Whatever shows up, we breathe with it, respond intentionally, observe what happens and learn from experience.

Good Practice Guidelines

Mindfulness is rooted in an ethical foundation for living. Cultivating awareness goes hand-in-hand with freeing oneself from destructive habits and careless acts. A traditional five-fold scheme to support one’s practice is:
  • To avoid harming living beings
  • To avoid taking what is not freely given
  • To avoid causing suffering through sexual behaviour
  • To avoid speaking untruths
  • To avoid indulging unmindful states through alcohol or drugs.
These are not commandments. They are training guidelines. They underscore the aspiration to live harmoniously with oneself and with others. They encourage awareness of one’s actions and the effects of these actions. For example, the point concerning intoxicants that cloud the mind is not a moral judgement on intoxicants, but a caution about their potential impact on the other four guidelines.

These five guidelines, expressed above as abstentions, also have a flipside. When lived by, they express themselves in their positive aspect, which are, respectively:
  • To act with kindness and compassion
  • To act generously
  • To practise contentment in one’s relationships
  • To communicate truthfully and recognise falsity
  • To act mindfully.
Designed to foster a particular attitude to life, such guidelines are the symptom and product of authentic mindfulness practice. Interestingly, practitioners often spontaneously develop such ethical sensibilities despite having no intellectual knowledge of these traditional guidelines.

From: Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety, 2016.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Mindfulness Locked Down (III)

What kind of world do you want to live in? How does it compare to the one you are living in? How might you build bridges between the two? Are you doing so?

Such considerations do not lie beyond the scope of mindfulness. ‘Practice’ is, essentially, an education in sensitivity. We learn through experience how the ways in which we act affect our minds and vice versa. Gradually we incline towards what is healthy or, at least, harmless. In this way, our practice extends from the solitude of formal meditation to being an active, benign presence in the world. This is the ethical dimension of mindfulness.

Getting Grounded

One skilful way of relating to the coronavirus lockdown is to see it as a mandate to reflect deeply. You have been sent to your room and asked to consider your behaviour. So, how’s it been going? What steps have you taken to get to this point? Do you discern any patterns? Where are you taking your life next? What’s your contribution to the world-at-large going to look like?

Challenging questions, possibly. Rest assured clear answers are not necessary. What arises might be a felt sense, images, vague ideas. Allow these to clarify themselves rather than you having to work them out. Notice any resistance you may have to this enquiry. How much you might want your pre-pandemic life back is a measure of your grasping and your no-hope lawsuit with reality. The future is another matter: it is unformed and awaits your next move.

Inside Out

From a mindfulness-based perspective, skilful action arises out of awareness of the inner process: What is showing up within me? How am I affected by my current situation? What does this experience have to tell me about what truly matters?

When we are able to touch the depths of our feelings, our places of vulnerability, we find our heartfulness and compassion. Engaging the heart gives us the courage and the clarity of perspective to really open up to what is happening in the world-at-large. This is the move from ‘inner’ to ‘outer’. We can be fully in the world and fully owning our experience. We can be sensitive and receptive without projecting our fears and aversions onto others. This is the backbone of mindfulness.

Heart of the Practice

To paraphrase ancient wisdom, nothing lies outside the gaze of the compassionate mind. It is courageous to embrace the fullness of the world and screen out nothing. Sometimes all we can do is sit tenderly with the pain and sadness that arise when we behold the suffering of the world: plague, climate destabilisation, poverty, hunger, war, pollution, natural disasters, anxiety, addiction, despair. At other times, when our heartfulness is strong, we will find the commitment, even the imperative, to act. Either way, when we consciously decide not to turn away from suffering in any form, we are at our most deeply human.

Every moment, life seeks a response. And, sure enough, in every moment you are doing something. What? How conscious is it? What shapes this action? What effects does it have? All that goes on inside you will find its way into the world-at-large, somehow or other. You are a mover and shaker whether you want to be or not. You matter. The imperative of mindfulness is to pause, open up, intend, act.

In this respect, pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown, upheaval or no upheaval, what matters has not changed, though it might feel all the more pressing: What kind of world do you want to live in? How does it compare to the one you are living in? How might you build bridges between the two? Are you doing so?

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Mindfulness Locked Down (II)

When life has been thrown into flux and confusion by the coronavirus pandemic, mindfulness practice pares down to skilful interventions on yours or another’s behalf to meet basic needs. At such times, the fragility of life is starkly revealed while our animal instinct to run for the hills is thwarted by a lockdown. It can feel overwhelming. Taking care of the seconds and minutes is enough. Otherwise, as Albert Camus notes in The Plague (1947), “stupidity has a knack of getting its way.”

In less critical moments, might we lift our heads to take a broader view of events, inner and outer, and consider how best to respond to the plight of the world? When things pause, as large parts of human society have, they are easier to focus on. This is the gateway to mindfulness writ large. Remember that ‘practice’ is not a purely personal endeavour nor mere strategic navigation of changing conditions for self-serving ends. It is about more than just you (if this is unclear, start here).

Enlightening Times

Crises scratch the surface of human existence and reveal what otherwise might be difficult to see.
This pandemic is no exception in affording a clearer-than-usual glimpse into the world we inhabit. It is interconnected in every which way we look at it.

These days we are obliged to confront our dependence on each other for survival, from the food we eat to the healthcare we need. We are less inclined to devalue the people who put their own safety on the line to provide life-sustaining services for others – not just frontline health workers but cleaners, care workers, shop workers and many others. Through acts of kindness and consideration, we discover a solidarity with our neighbours that turns out to have been there, untapped, the whole time. Priorities tend to shift when we discern who and what is essential.

Joining the Dots

Our non-separation from animals and nature is glaring. This coronavirus was likely transmitted from animals as a result of human encroachment into areas of the eco-system we used to leave be. Such invasions not only expose human vulnerabilities but can be catastrophic for other species. Now is a good time to remember that we too are animals.

Observe how this unprecedented human pause impacts our environment. The natural world – at the mercy of human exploitation and greed for so long – finds a rare chance to reclaim some territory. Meanwhile, pollution levels plummet and rivers teem with new life. What do fresher air, bluer skies, clearer waters and thriving fellow creatures have to tell us about how our species treats that which it depends on?

Remember This Moment

Mindfulness writ large is unflinching in its gaze and compassionate in impulse. Practice is inherently relational. Nothing need fall outside its remit. Now is the time, if you have the resources, to open up to the momentous change happening around you and to prepare to take your heartfulness into the world (once you’re allowed out again, that is).

This is an essential dimension of practice. To assist you, it might be useful to recollect that life is no more fragile or any less certain than it ever was. What’s changed is that our collective propensity for denial has been smashed by the wrecking ball of reality. We have always lived in a world interpenetrated by sickness and death. We never were in control. But the scale of suffering is eternally up for grabs and this is where your mindfulness and compassion are so needed.

There is nothing like a virus to remind us that we breathe the same air, that borders are insubstantial, and that something as simple as washing one’s hands can be an act of community service. There is nothing like a pandemic to illustrate how our lives are intertwined, not-so-solid and prone to extermination. On the planetary level, the worst that could happen now is we fail to read the signs or listen to the alarm bells and go back to sleep.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Mindfulness Locked Down (I)

The realisation may already have dawned on you: mindfulness prepares you for the times in which you live. Pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown, upheaval or no upheaval, ‘practice’ means embracing the conditions of the moment with a warm heart, looking them straight in the eye and responding with as much skill and care as you can muster.

For able-bodied practitioners, a lockdown offers a legion of opportunities. A rich and longstanding tradition of prison meditation programmes attests to it. Even in the midst of disagreeable change, disruption to habits, removal of presumed comforts, escalating social panic and the freshly exposed human proximity to death, we can draw upon our compassion and intelligence to be open and awake to it all.

Start Here

This might not be easy, so where to begin? As always, start where you are. Remember, there are no hierarchies on the path of mindfulness. Prior attainments or perfect conditions are wholly unnecessary. A blissful moment in meditation has no more value than any other moment. A lockdown has no less going for it than what you might consider to be ‘normal life’. When awareness is well established, the mind’s tendency to inflate the significance of particular experiences is diminished. In its place, equanimity can flourish.

In this way, mindfulness practice is grounding. It is a natural antidote to the mental wobbling, catastrophising and forgetfulness humans are prone to when anxious. We wise up more quickly to our tendency to fixate on bad news, defend against emotional upset and impulsively stockpile goods out of fear. We let go more readily of rigid views about the future and our primitive struggles with uncertainty.

The moment we catch ourselves sliding into despair or being afflicted with the contagious panic of others, we can gift ourselves the space to breathe, to feel, and to re-orientate ourselves in this moment. Life in its fullness become possible again. At other times, feeding a neighbour, caring for the sick or mourning the dead might be the focus of our practice.

Start Now

Thanks to the concern and generosity of countless good-hearted people, there is a plethora of free online resources to guide you safely through a lockdown. Their contents vary but the underlying principles align neatly with the basics of everyday mindfulness:

  • maintain and develop routines that attend to basic human needs for care, exercise, social contact, creative engagement and contact with nature. Choose wisely what you feed your mind as well as your body.
  • maintain and develop a healthy balance between ‘being’ and ‘doing’. This necessitates limiting the number of activities you undertake, completing them fully, and remembering to pause before you commence new ones.
  • reduce or avoid poor coping strategies, i.e. the ones that provide only short-term relief from psychological discomfort and tend to inspire dependency or excessive use in the
    longer term. 
  • spend time listening inwardly. Let your body and heart tell you what matters, what is of value and where meaning is to be found, especially in turbulent times.
  • pay attention to the ordinary and humble details of existence (or at least endeavour not to discount them). Washing your hands can be a meditation as well as physically life-preserving. Chewing a piece of food can be an act of kindness to one’s body rather than a mere stepping stone to the next morsel. Walking from one room to another can be a conscious act that enables you to arrive, inwardly and outwardly, into a totally fresh space.

Stay Safe

As the old saying goes: when we take care of the present, the future takes care of itself. The mental quality of mindfulness is, by nature, protective (more about this here). Just as we might socially distance from others out of care, we can do something comparable with our minds when they get sucked into vortices of worry, catastrophising and doom-mongering.

 When we are able to hold in awareness, with intimacy and without aversion, the latest horror story our minds have concocted, all the while allowing the energy of associated feelings to express itself, we are doing something powerful and profoundly liberating: being with things as they are.

Negative thoughts lose their toxic charge when we offer them friendly respect and give them space. Psychologically speaking, this is a kind of social distancing. It is a lot less painful than the attrition warfare we are prone to waging with our unruly minds. It also frees us up to act wisely and kindly.

Wise action and creative engagement with all forms of life are necessary expressions of mindfulness practice. Even in a lockdown, might we consider that the most ordinary activities, carried out with attention and intention, have effects beyond their apparent significance? When we tap deeply into our presence in the world, might the world in turn become more present to us? Here lies the innate interconnection between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ that abides regardless of whether or not we venture beyond our front doors.

Friday, 31 January 2020

How Does It Feel?

What is your ‘felt sense’ in this moment? Yes, this moment. If you are not sure, pause and allow awareness to open to your physical experience. Deliberately inhabit the ever-present inner landscape of bodily sensations. Let the prevailing mood or atmosphere of body and mind become known to you. What do you notice about the overall quality of feeling you are experiencing now? Pause reading and just feel.

What do you notice? Is the prevailing feeling tone of your subjective experience pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Is it in flux? Whatever you notice, and no matter how rapidly it may be changing, feeling tone is always either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

Three Hedonic Tones

Cultivating awareness of the hedonic tone of one’s experience is a significant part of mindfulness practice. Particularly in meditation, we can become keenly aware of how qualities of pleasantness, unpleasantness and neither-pleasantness-nor-unpleasantness (i.e. neutrality) arise out of the process of contact with bodily sensations, sounds and thoughts.

Sometimes the tone of the experience is clear, such as when there is intense physical pain (unpleasant) or when we are lost in a dreamy mental fantasy or a state of bliss (pleasant). Many times we simply fail to recognise this aspect of our psycho-physical process. Feeling tones can be subtle, habitual and easy to miss. Noticing them is a practice in sensitivity.

Two Discoveries

Mindfulness of feeling tone facilitates two important discoveries. First, it allows us to catch what happens next, i.e. what occurs conditional upon the arising of a feeling. If the feeling is pleasant, the mind tends to cling to the experience. If it is unpleasant, the mind tends to resist or avoid the experience. If it is neutral, the mind might overlook the experience altogether, or get caught in boredom or numbness, which inevitably gives rise to a renewed cycle of craving and aversion.

Second, we come to see how feeling tones are constructed by the mind. They are not implicit in the object we are in contact with. Our minds get this mixed up. If I like Marmite and you don’t, it says nothing about Marmite, right? We may experience different feeling tones when eating Marmite but this is due to our minds. Feeling tones also vary depending upon circumstances. If you are feeling happy, people and things may look or sound more pleasant compared with, say, when you feel sad, angry or anxious.

One Contented Person

Mindfulness facilitates a greater capacity to be with an experience without adding anything to it. In becoming aware of the hedonic tone of the moment, we can engage with it just as it is. We can appreciate pleasantness. We can develop an accepting attitude to unpleasantness. We can acknowledge neutral feelings. Greater sensitivity and flexibility of response help us step outside the dissatisfying loop of attachment and aversion and allow spaciousness and ease to find a foothold.

One final thought: mindfulness meditation emphasises embodied awareness and much of our bodily experience is hedonically neutral (an obvious example being the breath, which neither excites nor repels the mind). In deliberately cultivating awareness of neutral feeling tones, the meditator can discover how these often have a quality of restfulness or easefulness, i.e. how neutrality shades into pleasantness. In this way, through the simple practice of meditation, one’s ‘bandwidth’ for pleasantness broadens and one develops a subtle taste for quiet contentment.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Soft Power

Gentle, patient and persistent effort empowers one’s practice. On a micro level, it is no more and no less than the energy required to wake up to what is occurring in the here-and-now. On a macro level, it has four aspects:

  • to sustain positive states that have already arisen
  • to arouse positive states that have not yet arisen
  • to abandon negative states once they have arisen
  • to guard against negative states so that they do not arise.

These are traditionally known as the Four Great Efforts. Reflecting on these and honing actions accordingly is a means to clarity and composure in daily life. If this is a new idea, below is an example of how you might apply it.

New Year's Resolutions

Take a few minutes to run through the past year in your mind. What do you recall? What stands out? Are there particular highlights? What about low points? Which experiences, activities and events seem to have been positive, useful or enjoyable? Which were more negative, unsettling or difficult? Which seem more neutral?

Now take a pen and paper and write some brief notes around these 10 questions:

  • What is worthy of celebration from the past year? 
  • At what times did you live in alignment with your values?
  • What would be good to do more of?
  • What would be good to invoke?
  • When did you not align with your values?
  • Have you done what you set out to accomplish in the
    last year?
  • In terms of what you hoped to achieve, what got
    missed out? 
  • What valuable personal or professional lessons have
    you learned?
  • What would be good to release from or let go of? 
  • What in your life is not serving you?

Your notes should contain within them some clues as to what would be good for you to maintain, to develop, to change and to avoid. Now set some clear intentions for the year ahead by posing yourself these four questions:

  • What aspects of my life are beneficial and are worth maintaining? 
  • What aspects of my life are beneficial and are worth developing or strengthening? 
  • What aspects of my life are not beneficial and need changing? 
  • What aspects of my life are not beneficial and need avoiding? 

Grand Narratives (I)

If you were to consider what ‘mindfulness’ means to you, what would show up in your mind? If you were to reflect deeply on the nature and pu...