Living the Mindful Life

EMERGING FROM SABBATICAL

PEACE, AWARENESS AND ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD.

Dear friends,

I usually write a blog about once a month on themes around mindfulness, meditation and living a more mindful life. However I have been deliberately quiet this summer while taking time for what I have termed a ‘sabbatical/retreat’ – a term which both tries to describe the mix of what I have been doing as well as trying to sound reasonably impressive when people ask. So, a few words this month on what this has been about and what is emerging from it.

It was around November last year when I began to realise that, having left my career at least in part so I would be able to stop racing around without a real awareness of what I was racing around for, I was now in danger of doing it again even though I was now self-employed and had more control over my life. So it was then that I decided to take a term off teaching all forms of mindfulness and to give myself the space perhaps to get in touch with something both deeper and wider. ‘Deeper’ would be about connecting more deeply within and ‘wider’ would be about sensing more acutely the context in which I wanted to teach. My time would be spent in meditation, reading and in the simple practical business of living. I would be mostly home based but I would also spend some time in solitude.

So, in terms of ‘deeper’, yes I did feel that I came much closer over time to an awareness of some core patterns of my own thinking and reacting. Some of these were quite challenging for me and at times I felt I was truly ‘facing my demons’. But I never felt I got lost and very much attribute this to my meditation practice which trains us in keeping some degree of perspective as we allow ourselves to experience all that is within. There is a huge difference between getting sucked in or lost in our thought processes and being able to see them happen in real time, however difficult they may be. There were some difficult and unpleasant moments, yes, especially during a two week period I spent alone, but these moments usually came just before I began to recognise what it was that was here. Unlike some brands of cheap furniture, the veneer almost always being worse that the thing itself.

I would like to say more on this in time but just to say for now that my feeling is that something quite deep has shifted in me and that new possibilities seem to be here as a result.

And in terms of ‘wider’ I have had the growing sense that I don’t want to be just teaching mindfulness but I want my teaching to be in the service of some aspect of life which I feel deeply committed to. Mainstream mindfulness has the admirable aim of reducing people’s experience of suffering both physical and mental and I completely support this aspiration and the vital work which is being done here. But for my own part I find my heart is drawn to a wider context than this. Over the years I have been involved in environmental protest, in nature connection, in homelessness and other social issues as well as in spirituality and also find myself deeply moved and disturbed by much of what is going on in the political world these days. But, despite my own privilege, I also feel vulnerable and somewhat anxious when I reflect on these things today. So I do want to engage meaningfully with the world but I also recognise the need for honesty, knowing our limits and support from both personal practice and from community. So, will it be possible to practice and teach mindfulness in a way which relates to these kinds of things? This is my hope – or my wondering. So, to give myself more time to reflect on this and have some conversations and do some planning, I have decided not to set up courses for this autumn but to set my sights on the new year instead.

Looking for a central theme though, I have been wondering about two key aspects which mindfulness is often associated with and which we also find in the spiritual traditions. These are Peace and Awareness. And then I want to add a third word, Engagement.

Peace, in terms of a calmness within, may be absolutely what you need right now to deal with significant anxiety or turmoil. And that is good – mindfulness can support us with this. But even Jesus had an ambiguous relationship with the word, at one point telling his followers that he had not come to bring peace but the sword – and as he turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple he was not exactly contributing to calmness. Old testament prophets were also known to attack those they considered false prophets for declaring there was peace when in fact there was no peace. This last links with others who have declared that there can be no peace without justice. And finally I am told that the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ (usually translated ‘peace’) has much more the sense of ‘a wide open space where the people can flourish’. So the term ‘peace’, at least in these traditions, carries a much wider meaning than calmness.

The other thing both mindfulness and the spiritual traditions talk about, though, is variously described as ‘seeing’, as ‘spiritual insight’, and particularly in the Buddhist tradition as ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’. And, although peace within is such a precious thing, it would seem to me that it will only ever be genuine peace if it is also linked with awareness – awareness both of what is within me as well as what is going on around me – and how they relate. And I think it is this aspect of mindfulness teaching which really draws me: mindfulness in the service of waking up to ourselves and to the world; mindfulness in the service of creative engagement with the issues around us; mindfulness in the service of helping us to reflect on just how to live in these times; mindfulness as a way of shifting perspective and then, and only then, deciding how to act.

So, this is as far as I have got and what I will be wondering about through the autumn. I would be interested in thoughts, ideas, connections and others who are thinking along the same lines. And then, hopefully, setting up groups for January – some just basic mindfulness but some exploring how mindfulness can support our engagement in the world. And, yes, for those who have asked, I do hope to be able to offer some on-line stuff if that is the only way. I’ve even got around to buying a web-cam!

Living the mindful life

SABBATICAL/RETREAT

This will be my last blog until September or October since I am now beginning a summer of sabbatical/retreat which I had planned for some time.

The idea for this sabbatical came last autumn when I suddenly realised that, having left a fairly frantic career 18 months previously in order to live a different kind of life, I was beginning to move towards the same sort of frantic-ness which had marked my life previously. This was partly due to the natural felt need to get ahead and on top in terms of earning an income but partly, I suspect, simply because that is my long ingrained habit – of getting busy, starting and developing projects and feeling the buzz of activity and the feel good factor of offering something which seems to be so appreciated.

And there is nothing wrong in any of this of course. It was just that I felt I was drifting into the same mental cycle that I was in before when I knew that my longing was to know and experience something different – to more deeply engage with whatever might be behind and beneath all of this. To put it more existentially, who am I when I am not fulfilling a role as ‘teacher’, ‘organiser’, ‘leader’? Or, what is left when all my roles are put to one side and no one ‘sees’ me anymore?

These questions can feel a little scary when I realise that the answer could be – or could feel like – ‘well -nobody and, nothing’ – that perhaps I was only ever the sum of my roles. But on the other hand my sense is that discovering that I am nobody could even be a doorway to a different way of being which feels as though it could have something of a greater lightness and a deeper freedom to it. Something about coming home to myself as a very simple and very ordinary being who wakes, cooks, cleans, breathes, moves – and loves. Is it possible that this could be enough – and that if we all discovered this kind of simplicity of being then we might even start to back-peddle on the amount of the earth’s resources which we otherwise require to help us to feel we are ‘somebody’ in the face of this fear of being ‘nobody’?

And yet I am clearly getting ahead of myself here – because I don’t actually know what will come out of this sabbatical for me yet. And, indeed, that is at least part of the point – not to know or pre-judge, but to see if I can be open to whatever might emerge. And this includes what I might do afterwards. I am assuming I will go back to teaching mindfulness and meditation in some form but I don’t yet know and so am keeping my teaching plans for the autumn fairly loose.

In terms of my intentions, I have suggested elsewhere that my plan is to ‘live simply and to pay attention to the simple business of living’.  I’m not going anywhere but will live at home and engage as deeply as I can with all the basic activities of living from day to day with as much awareness, presence, love and creativity as is possible for me. I shall (probably) meditate lots and also (probably) explore all that I am wondering about through reading lots too. And I shall, no doubt, spend a lot of time in our meditation barn.

 

When my wife asked me what I would be doing I said I would be cultivating three ‘S’s: Silence, Solitude and Simplicity. To which she replied, perhaps sensing the over-earnestness in such a scheme: ‘and what about some Fun, Foolishness and Frivolity? – there you are, three ‘F’s to add to your list!’. Ah, yes, of course, let’s not get too heavy about all this and miss the point completely.

So, fun, frivolity and foolishness, then. (Though the silence, solitude and simplicity will be there too, I think.). But no teaching, writing, organising etc. and discovering that the world will carry on perfectly well without me. And then seeing how the world looks in a few months’ time. And of course, in this case, that will not just be my own inner world but what the world will be like as we emerge from this pandemic.

Nothing is certain. Which, of course, is always the case. It’s just that usually we don’t realise how uncertain everything really is.

So, let’s see what happens …

I wish you all the very best for this period of lock-down and also for whatever emerges for you in the aftermath.

Tim

 

 

Mindfulness in the midst of this 3

Mindfulness in the midst of this –

‘being overwhelmed is not wrong’

A last blog in this series offering mindfulness based support in these troubled times ….

In my last post I talked about three zones of experience which I called our ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’. The intention of the piece was to direct our awareness to these three kinds of experience and to encourage us to develop the skills to enable us to avoid ‘overwhelm’ if we choose to.

But I wanted to write an important corollary to this. And that is, this does not mean that being overwhelmed is wrong – or that something has gone wrong if that is my experience. Overwhelm can be really unpleasant, disorientating  and can involve real suffering. But it would be unhelpful to add the additional suffering of thinking I have in some way failed or got something wrong if I feel overwhelmed by all that is happening. Indeed some would argue that if I find myself overwhelmed I am actually well attuned to the situation.

So the point here is to acknowledge that, despite my best intentions, there will be times when I do just become overwhelmed. And this can happen either because of my outward circumstances and the things I am facing in life, or while I am simply sitting at home alone and while outwardly perfectly safe my thoughts and anxieties get the better of me and it all goes a bit horrible.

And so if I find myself in such a state (or if you are supporting a friend who is) then it may be helpful to remember three key things:

  1. This is not my fault and nothing fundamental has gone wrong
  2. Other people will also be experiencing this, and
  3. It will pass.

Nothing has gone wrong

The first point is crucial in helping us not to add coals to the fire and may help us to step back just a little and recognise ‘overwhelm’ for what it is rather than spiralling down with it. Just saying the words ‘I am feeling overwhelmed’ may help. Or if someone says this to you over the phone, then actually that is quite a helpful thing to say and our response should not be to suddenly to try to fix this person’s overwhelm but rather to help them to realise that this is quite reasonable and so, as it were, to be OK with it. No, it’s not nice and your friend is sharing their real suffering. But at least they have been able to articulate it. It may be that, having articulated it, they will be better able to choose wisely what to do right now while it is here.

Others will also be experiencing this.

The second point can also be very helpful in veering us away from over-personalising our mood state. And what’s more, it is true – many other people will be feeling the same right now – and possibly thinking they are the only one or that something is wrong with them. But the truth is that this feeling of overwhelm is a normal human reaction to the set of circumstances (outer or inner) that we are all facing. And so it can even be helpful to imagine others who are facing the same as me right now and then wishing them well, for instance as we do in the ‘befriending’ meditation if you know it:

May others who are feeling the same as me at this time be safe; may they find peace; and may they know kindness. 

This, too, will pass

And the final point is what some have suggested is the greatest and deepest wisdom that there is: ‘this, too, will pass’. So actually I don’t need to do anything to fight it or make it go away. And furthermore knowing that it will pass will actually help me not to get into fights with it (which generally makes things worse anyway) and will help me to ‘be with it’ in a way that will, counterintuitively, help it to pass more easily.

[The meditation which most relates to all this, by the way, is often called ‘being with the difficult’. But it is best to use this meditation only when you are feeling a bit more settled and stable as a way of practising ‘being with difficulty’ as opposed to fighting difficulty. It would not be helpful to use as a kind of emergency help when you are still in the midst of feeling overwhelmed.]

And so, in short, the best way for me to respond to finding myself in the place of overwhelm is to see if I can possibly say to myself something like:

So here it is, here is the state of overwhelm and, actually, that is OK, it is normal, others will be experiencing this and it will pass. But what is it possible for me to do right now which will help me while it is here?

And as I write this, whatever you are facing right now, I wish you all courage and peace together with the knowledge that you are, in fact, not alone:

May you all be safe; may you all find peace; may you all know kindness.

And with every blessing and with warm wishes,

Tim

Mindfulness in the midst of this 2

In the midst of this –

Staying connected but grounded.

I am adding one or two extra blogs at the moment in case it is helpful to reflect on what mindfulness has to offer us ‘in the midst of this’.

I noted in my last blog that we will all be facing such very different circumstances at the moment: some nightmarish and some reasonably peaceful; some struggling badly with isolation and others wanting a bit less contact. But as a principle for mindfulness engagement, ‘staying connected but grounded’ can be a good maxim for all of us and here are some thoughts on this.

Three zones of experience

At some point along a mindfulness course we will often teach that it is a good thing to become aware of what constitutes our individual ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’.

Place of refuge.

Our ‘place of refuge’ is where we feel very at ease, calm and safe. It will have as much to do with outer circumstances as it has to do with inner experience. But it is possible to experience it through mindfulness practice even when outer experience is challenging or threatening to overwhelm us. ‘Wise distraction’ must always be remembered as our first call when things are very tough (if we have the choice) – turning our attention away from what is causing distress towards something which feels more nourishing and resourcing. But many mindfulness practices will also help and these will be the ones that give us a sense of stability and grounding: body scan, mindful movement, work with breath and body etc., though really it is for each of us to come to know through experience what will help us to reconnect with this place of safety and refuge – and so to know how to return to it at any time that we need to. And it is important to note that this is not running away from difficulty but is about looking after ourselves – indeed, building up a ‘bank’ of steadiness which will enable us to cope better when difficulty is here.

Place of challenge.

However, although it is really important that we know how to return to our place of refuge, this will not be a place where we will grow, discover new things or are able to show much compassion to others. So most of us would not want to be in this place all the time but would want to venture further out into our ‘place of challenge’. Again this will be different for each of us. For some it will be about choosing to read certain news items which we may normally want to avoid – in order to feel a bit more connected with what others are going through at the moment. Others, of course, are already being thrown relentlessly into and beyond their place of challenge every day and so there is no effort needed to find their place of challenge but rather the effort needed is to regularly connect with their place of refuge. In terms of news, I access my news through the BBC web-site and on the whole I tend to avoid video items as I find them so powerful but last week I deliberately watched a clip of an NHS nurse talking about her recent work shift and about how they were hardly coping but how they were struggling on. She was herself still very stressed – distressed – and it cut me through. But I was glad I watched it. On the one hand it would be no good just letting myself get overwhelmed by everything since I would probably then want to withdraw completely. But this was a really helpful way for me to connect with what is happening ‘out there’ – what many people are experiencing as their norm day by day in these times. Other days it might be wise for me not to watch such clips but on that day I felt able and it was good. It gave more weight to our NHS clapping on Thursday evenings.

So, again, managing how much I connect with what is going on will be part of it. But also the mindfulness practices ‘sounds and thoughts’, ‘being with the difficult’ and ‘befriending’ will all have elements of deliberately opening us up to and being with challenging thoughts, emotions and memories. And working with these kinds of practices will help us to connect both with what is going on ‘out there’ and with the personal stuff it brings up in us – which will, in turn, be a key part of the route both to deeper compassion and wise action.

Place of overwhelm.

But we should also always keep an eye on when we are approaching our place of overwhelm. If we start to become overwhelmed not much good really happens. Our minds become less clear, our decision making begins to get muddled, we become difficult to be with and we are not much use to others. As well as the fact that it is really unpleasant and may cause us to withdraw rather sharply form any kind of connection.

So, in general, overwhelm is to be avoided. And so it is best to see it coming and to take some sort of evasive action. And this will mean returning to the strategies which connect us with our place of refuge: ‘wise distraction’ and the ‘grounding’ mindfulness practices.

Connected but grounded.

Which brings me back to the title of this piece. We do naturally want to connect with all that is going on. We want to do all we can to support others. We want our hearts to expand with compassion. But we each need to recognise when we are close to our limits and need to pull back a bit (if it is possible in the circumstances at the time of course). So, connecting while remaining grounded is the image which helps me – as if making sure I am really well anchored to the side of the river before reaching out to help someone who is caught in the rapids. And, of course, the more work I do on my ‘grounding’ – building up resilience while in my place of refuge – the more I will be able to venture out into the place of challenge.

I very much hope you will increasingly sense this feeling of groundedness through your meditation practice even as you connect with all that is going on in these strange, unstable times.

 

Mindfulness – in the midst of this 1

In the midst of this.

In these days of global pandemic our first priority is to save and protect life and I am hoping that everything I am doing and the way that I am now living reflects this basic intention. But our mental well-being, too, will be so important as we seek to manage anxiety, keep ourselves steady and keep making good decisions in the midst of it all.

The phrase ‘in the midst of this’ is one we use sometimes in guided practice as a reminder that mindfulness is not just something we do when we can get away from it all but is something which is intended very much to be a resource in the midst of life – whatever we are facing. So here are some thoughts which may be helpful ‘in the midst’ of whatever you are facing in these difficult times.

But first just to acknowledge that people may be reading this in very different circumstances. For some suddenly life has become truly frantic and there is no choice in this – this is simply what is required of us in these times, or what we have chosen to do in response to need. For others, though, life has suddenly become very quiet and the usual things which keep us focused and reasonably balanced in ourselves have disappeared. And in each group there are those who will be thriving on these new circumstances and those for whom they are a real challenge.

Mood swings?

In fact our circumstances are so varied that it is difficult to get a sense of what one or two things might be helpful to write about but I thought I’d start with my own experience in the midst of it all which is noticing the difficulty in managing mood swings.

It might be interesting to note just how much we manage our moods by what we do and the routine of our lives. In my piece on Managing Anxiety (https://timsteadmindfulness.wordpress.com/troubled-times/) I reflected on just how much what we do (because it involves where I place my attention) affects our mood and sense of well-being. In which case, perhaps it is not such a surprise that with these very different circumstances our moods (high, low, anxious, excited etc.) can be thrown off key a bit. I find I am steadiest when I have just enough, but not too much work to be getting on with (whether paid work or domestic tasks) and it is when there is nothing that I have to do (even though there is still plenty I could do) that I become a bit more vulnerable. This can come as a vague sense of dis-ease, anxious thoughts taking over, self-critical thoughts or just an undefined listlessness. And if these moods get the better of me they can be quite debilitating as they flood into the gaps of all the space which is now here (and which, of course, I had so longed for previously).

‘Mindfulness of moods’

The first rule of mindfulness is to keep ourselves safe and to do whatever works for us in terms of steering us away from a downward spiral. And very often this can be our old friend ‘wise distraction’! – just do something which shifts the attention to something more positive and encouraging – or at least away from anything which may be causing the anxiety or low mood.

But the second rule is always ‘awareness’ – if I feel steady enough is it possible to bring some degree of awareness to what is actually going on for me? This is not about trying to fix or sort or change my mood but rather about throwing some light on it by actually turning towards it.

Three ‘R’s

So this is what I have been trying to do – sometimes, when I feel able – and I have found this helpful. And I have three ‘R’s which I follow which help me.

First: Recognise what is here. This involves me simply saying to myself ‘ah, here it is – my mood has noticeably shifted and I don’t like it’. But then making a conscious decision to sit down and pay it a bit of attention. All I am doing really is acknowledging what is here – I’m not trying to understand it or analyse it let alone fix it but just to recognise it for what it is. One of the things I have begun to notice as I do this is what time of day I seem to be most vulnerable – which is mid-afternoon for me. That’s quite helpful actually as I can then be a bit more ready for it. I can also remember that old maxim that ‘even this will pass’ – that moods are passing phenomena affected by so many things and so usually it is not really worth analysing. The important thing is simply to notice what is here and to know that it will pass.

My second ‘R’ is to Resource myself. And this just means to take a moment to bring a bit of care towards myself. This might involve spending a few moments reconnecting with my breathing or breathing with my body sensations. It might involve a three stage breathing space if you are familiar with that, or it might involve showing myself some compassion. But just something which acknowledges, against whatever backdrop of self-critical thoughts might be there, that there is a person suffering here and that they (me) could do with a bit of care.

And then my third ‘R’ is now to Respond – which is now to make some decision about what to do next. And usually I will make a better decision about what to do if I have been through the first two ‘R’s. The question I might offer myself at this point is: ‘what would support my own well-being in this moment?’. And even if my main concern is to support others, responding wisely to this question will always be the first part of how I can get to a place where I can do this. In my own case sometimes I have sat and meditated a bit longer, sometimes I have chosen to do some simple practical task, sometimes I have gone for a walk and a few times I have phoned a friend. You will make your own choice but probably the most important thing is that you have made a definite choice – not whether it is in some way a ‘right’ choice.

Anyway, I wish you all well as you seek to keep yourself both safe and well during these times.