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.

Grand Narratives (III)

Where and how do you ‘situate’ mindfulness in your life? The previous two posts overview why this is a valuable question to consider. Wise r...