Living the mindful life 9

MOTIVATION

I once watched a spoof interview with a football manager who was talking somewhat over-earnestly about the ‘three M’s’, which were: motivation, motivation and motivation. It wasn’t terribly funny actually but somehow it has stayed with me. And I think this is because it resonates so much with what usually becomes quite a theme for both teachers and students in mindfulness classes. Participants often ask ‘how do I get myself to actually do the meditation practices regularly?’ which is echoed by the teachers’ ‘how do we actually get the students to actually do the practices regularly?’, as well as our own ‘I know it helps when I do it but still I so often find something better to do when the time comes’.

Some students have even suggested that we set up some sort of a surveillance system – checking they are doing their meditation practice every day. Mmmm – Big Brother comes to mind a bit too readily here. A fellow teacher (only half-jokingly) suggested an electronic tag system. But the reason both of these will fail ultimately – even if they were ethical – is that we have to find motivation from within us – it must be part of our own free choosing. If we can find this, then we will start to be in it for the long term. But how do we do this?

Towards the end of an 8 week course we address the issue of motivation from an unexpected direction. Participants are asked to consider something they deeply value or long for in life. It is a contemplative exercise intended to help people to become aware of and then deeply connect with their own deepest values. We could probably spend longer on this exercise as it can take time for us each to become aware of what is really true for us rather than the things perhaps we feel we are expected to say. But importantly it helps each person to begin to come close to what is going to be their particular motivation. The implication being, if you can link your meditation practice with something you already deeply value, then you may carry on practising for this reason – not because you ‘should’ or have been told to, but because you personally want to. Examples might be, it is important for me: to avoid the suffering of depression/anxiety/stress; to be a better partner/parent; to be more creative; that life is not just a series of tasks to get done; to live this one life more fully.

Interestingly the deep longings which are being expressed here fall into two categories. One is the avoidance of suffering. The other is the cultivation of a more positive experience of life. In my experience, on the whole, the ones who are aware of their own suffering often seem to be the most motivated to practice. Once you have experienced a relief from suffering that is a very powerful motivator. It is not quite as simple as that as, for some, one of the of the symptoms of their suffering is the inability to organise their lives to any sort of routine. But generally it is a very strong motivator.

On the other hand, for people looking to cultivate the positive from an ‘OK’ base, I sometimes think that a different approach to motivation is necessary. I.e. carrot rather than stick. We need to focus on inviting people more into an adventure of living – playing on our curiosity and the lure of possibility. More ‘what have you got to lose through having a go’ and ‘what if meditation practice was a door to a whole new way of experiencing life which you will never know unless you give it a go!’

My own motivation comes from both of these. I know my suffering has reduced through practising: my periods of depression have been shorter and lighter and the way I manage stress has been totally transformed. But I also feel my whole life has opened up in extraordinary new ways – the gradual emergence of a deeper awareness in life makes me look back and feel as though I was just half asleep for so many years in the past.

So, in one sense we will all need to find our own motivation. And these are strong motivators for me but the other difficulty is that they are long term benefits which come through persevering with practice over a long period of time. So, here’s the rub: what is going to motivate me to practice todaythis time – this morning when I could so easily skip ‘just this once’. Because, although there will be good reasons for easing off sometimes, the trouble with the ‘just this once’ is that that can become ‘just this once’ tomorrow as well, and the next day and gradually I am out of the habit.

Which brings us really onto the role of habit forming because, let’s be honest, I may know the science, I may genuinely want to avoid further suffering, I may very much want to be a better parent, and I may truly want to live life more fully but some days none of these things impinge on my motivation at all. I just don’t want to practice and that is that.

I may write about the things that actively demotivate us in another blog sometime but here I just want to refer to the simple process of forming a habit which will tide us over when there seems to be no other motivation around.

We sometimes refer in classes to bringing a ‘just do it’ attitude to practice. And this is what we mean. Don’t worry or get caught up with all the motivational stuff – just do it for the sake of building a habit. And recognise that all habits are hard to form. But when they are formed somehow they can have an energy and flow of their own. Somehow we start to feel carried by the habit itself. So, sometimes it just needs us to tell ourselves, I am working on building a good habit which will support my health and well-being and just like all habits (going down to the gym, practising my musical instrument, mental maths) it is going to be hard work at times. But this is just simply what I am going to do – every day – for six months. And then I am going to allow myself to peek at whether it is supporting my declared deepest values. I can always stop later if it hasn’t. But I will never know unless I try!

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Living the mindful life 8

MINDFUL HOLIDAYS?

The coming few weeks may or may not be holiday season for you but for many they will be and I am often asked about the difficulty of keeping some kind of mindfulness practice going when routines change for holidays, when the children are home for extended periods, or even simply because of the challenges of staying awake in the muggy heat.

And I sympathise. I remember a time when I came back to work after a period of time of travelling and holiday during which I had not really practiced mindfulness for a while and I was surprised by how lacking in awareness and how reactive I was being as I re-entered the fray of working life. Was this just the standard business of changing gear again or could this have been better managed if I had kept my meditation going in some way or other? Without a controlled test, of course, it is hard to tell. But since then I have tried to at least keep in touch in some way with mindfulness during extended holiday periods and I have not experienced the same struggle back to work in quite the same way.

So here are some thoughts on this.

Firstly to note that the challenges are real. Most notably, routines change and if your mindfulness practice is linked with a steady routine then it can be difficult to work out when and how to respond to this. Secondly there may be more people around or you may be on holiday with people who do not share your practice or outlook. And then there is the added conceptual challenge of thinking that it may not be such a bad thing to take a holiday from mindfulness as well as from my working life.

So, first, the conceptual challenge. If I think mindfulness is just something that helps me cope with working life or even just one of the things I include in my normal day alongside so many other tasks then this is where I may get stuck. On the other hand if I have grasped that mindfulness is a beautiful and creative way to engage more fully and more richly with the whole of life – not just another task to complete but something that connects me with the very source of wisdom, compassion and ease of being – then, surely this will have everything to do with how I spend my leisure time just as much as my work time. Indeed it has the potential to help my holidays and the time I spend with others during these times to be richer, more peaceful and, of course, less stressful (as, yes, we all know how holidays can be more stressful that work!).

But secondly the business of change of routine and working in with others who I am now sharing my space with which seems to prevent me from finding time or space for formal practice. And there are two aspects of mindfulness practice which come to our aid here. The first, most simply, is the very short practices, the most well-known being the three stage breathing space. Just one (or two, or three) of these a day can make all the difference. It probably wouldn’t not be enough to sustain your practice in the long term but it may well help to keep you in touch during shorter periods when longer practices are not possible.

And the other tool from our mindfulness kit which can be really exploited on holiday is ‘mindful activities’. These are suggested as part of most courses not as a substitute for formal practice but as a way of bringing mindful awareness into ordinary life. And it would seem to me that there are plenty of opportunities to turn holiday activities into mindfulness practices with just a little bit of forethought and a little bit of intention. Mindful activities are simply doing the ordinary activities of life but instead of doing them automatically while engaging in conversation or letting the mind wander to this that or the other (often back to stressful concerns), paying as much detailed attention to the whole physical process of what I am actually doing and to my experience, moment by moment while I am doing it.

Examples might be:

  • Mindful walking: either on your own or drifting away from the pack just for a few minutes to come back to body sensations, the rhythmical movements of walking and connecting with the senses of hearing, sight, smell. Walking along the beech barefoot and feeling the sensations on the soles of your feet is a lovely way to do this.
  • Mindful swimming: just for a few meters, really feeling the sensations of coolness on the skin, and the rush of the water; stopping and floating for a few moments, fully aware of your senses once again.
  • Mindful sunsets/moon watching: just that really – and this is something others may so easily be drawn into. Often a natural silence descends as a small group of people are caught up with such strange beauty.
  • Mindful washing up: yes (!) this could actually be your big chance for some mindfulness practice as you offer occasionally to do the washing up and insist that you are entirely happy to do this on your own on this occasion. So, while the party caries on outside you have a precious few moments to feel the soap suds on your skin and the warmth of the water and to bring your full presence to the business of carefully cleaning this one dish and then this one, marvelling as you go at the patterns on the plates and the gradually easing of hard caked food from the surface of the pan with gentle unstressed perseverance (as opposed to frustrated, angry, grinding).

Finally – and here is something to explore – you can think about how to bring mindful awareness to whatever is your particular much loved holiday activity.

  • Mindful surfing; Mindful gardening; Mindful wild swimming; Mindful cycling; mindful fishing; mindful sailing; mindful nature walking; mindful skiing; mindful eating; mindful hill walking; mindful rock climbing; mindful kayaking.

In fact many of these activities seem to push you a bit towards mindfulness anyway such is the requirement to focus the attention in a gentle way to the exclusion of other nagging thought processes. And in the ‘resources’ section I have mentioned the series from Leaping Hare Press which seeks to make many of these connections for us.

So, are mindful holidays possible? A resounding ‘yes’ I would say. It just takes a little creativity and a little forethought and perhaps a bit of helpful reading.

Living the mindful life 7

The Mindful Year

I wrote in earlier blogs about structuring both the day and the week around our intentions to live more mindfully.

But it will clearly be impossible to live a fully balanced life within the confines of any particular week, let alone any particular day. Yes, it is worth paying as much attention as we can to the balance of both our individual days and our weeks so as to mix work and play, rest and relaxation, creativity and task focus, contemplation and action. But many aspects of life have a longer time scale and rhythm to them and so it is good also to think about the ebb and flow of the seasons of the year as another backdrop to how we engage more mindfully with life as a whole.

Some of our religious traditions can be quite good at this with their feasts and fasts, their festivals and times of penitence, their periods of preparation and of celebration. These help us to remember that human life is not monochrome and can help to normalise the highs and lows of human experience.

But here are a few additional things which may be worth thinking about as we reflect on the flow of our year:

Nature. Perhaps the most obvious thing to suggest is to pay a bit more attention to the changing of the seasons in nature. It all happens in nature: new life small & delicate; the overflowing abundance; storms and heatwaves; ice and snow; the slow process of dying gracefully; and death itself.  Absolutely everything happens before our eyes and under our feet and all we have to do is remember that we too are part of nature and so can find a deep wisdom in coming to recognise and sense the rhythms and the ebbs & flows of what we are a part of. I try to do this to some extent every day. But mainly I try to make sure I mark in some way the traditional earth festivals of solstice, equinox and the ‘cross-quarter’ days. Just to be in nature somehow and to recognise the shift – that something is changing and that the next six weeks or so will be different to the last – and to feel and experience this with nature all around me. Here is a wisdom many in society have almost forgotten.

Retreat. Some people who are keen to deepen their meditation practice or spiritual life will want to think about setting aside more than just a few hours or even a whole morning in order to do this. It is my sense that going on retreat once a year for anything from 4-8 days to an established centre which supports your own tradition of meditation is an essential – but also a wonderful – experience. Not always easy because, remember, meditation is about awareness rather than relaxation but always I come away having felt I have deepened my experience of what meditation and life itself is really all about.

Seasons of creativity. I believe we are all creative. It is just that we need to discover our particular way of being creative. When I found out that I could not draw I thought that was it for me as far as the visual arts were concerned. Then I discovered photography. It seems that I do have and eye, of sorts – just that the pencil or paint brush is not going to be my way of sharing it with others. I recently bought my first digital SLR camera – second hand through an ad on my local neighbourhood sharing site – and I am excited to get the hang of it and start being creative in this way (or restart – as I used to do quite a lot of photography when I was younger). The trouble is that I haven’t really had the time – or something! So I am wondering whether, if I don’t seem to be able to fit this in to my daily routine, I might designate a month soon where I make a concerted effort to getting going. Could this be a way of making sure creativity makes an appearance in our lives? Not keeping telling myself I will start soon – but designating a ‘creative’ month and then just going for it.

Quieter periods. All jobs seem to have busy periods during which we seem to get very little else done when loads of things build up on our ‘important but not urgent’ to-do list. There is probably not much you can do about this but I wonder whether we could recognise the other side and actually plan for the quieter periods of working life – not just as a relief but as an opportunity. Perhaps these could link with our season of creativity – or some major project we would love to get stuck into but which never seems to happen. Or perhaps we could decide to deliberately savour the spaces during such times – savour ‘being’ rather than more ‘doing’.

Withdrawal. If your life or work involves being with others a lot of the time you might want to designate a season or month in the year which deliberately has a lot of time for solitude: just not seeing so many people – staying in whenever you can if there is a choice – spending time doing whatever it is you love to do on your own, be it reading, music, being creative on your own, whatever ….  And let this be a time where you withdraw for a sustained period, into your own self – a time of nurture, of quietness, a time of self-compassion, a time of listening to your own soul. There seems too little of this going on in the world – there is always something more important to be doing and we mistakenly seem to prioritise social contact over solitude. So much so that many have forgotten or have never learned how to be alone. And it is interesting to note that being alone can feel very different if you have chosen to do it. Loneliness can turn into solitude.

 

Well, of course, these are only a few ideas but I hope they may stimulate thoughts about the annual cycle as an opportunity to experience and live out many of the deeply enriching things which never quite seem to happen in our lives. Another way of discovering how to live life to the full.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living the mindful life 6

MEDITATION AND ACTIVISM: PART 2

 In last month’s blog I reflected on whether and how social and political activism could, or even should, be a part of the mindful life. I think it is important to be very careful with the ‘should’ actually but it still seems to me that this area needs at least to be considered thoughtfully. And as I mentioned in that blog, I had been wondering whether to join in with the climate protests in London organised by Extinction Rebellion. I realise there will be different views on this particular activism but I thought it might be of interest to hear about one meditator’s experience, since I did, in the end, decide to go having loosely convened a group of other meditators as a support group.

So, here quite simply are my three journal entries following my three visits to the protests.

Tuesday 16th April
Yesterday was the first day of the Climate protests in London organised by Extinction Rebellion and a small but significant group of us ‘meditators’ walked quietly through Hyde Park to our designated meeting point at Marble Arch. I had had mixed feelings about joining in these protests and, indeed, one meditator friend decided not to come with quite legitimate questions of the ethics and efficacy of the action – which involved blocking roads and junctions throughout London for possibly up to two weeks. Also the meditation teacher I learned from last week offered a checklist for any protest which ought to include: right intention; right action; and right result.
And I have been thinking all these points through but then realising that even having tried to consider all possible angles and eventualities actually it is not always possible to come to an accurate view on them ahead of time. So I went at least with right intention and right heart with the hope that things might become clearer as we went.
It was a peaceful day on the whole with police taking an initial strategy of hands off and just managing the traffic. The policeman at our junction was very easy and friendly and only once – and quite gently and in response to our questions – letting us know that what would be at stake for him would be time with his family over the bank holiday weekend if it carried on. This felt hard – as did the inconvenience for Londoners trying to get to work. But we tried to keep reminding ourselves that the climate crisis we were trying to draw attention to was really on a completely different scale.
So we spent the entire day blocking and ‘holding’ junctions around Marble Arch – peacefully, joyfully and, on the whole, reasonably litter free. But our group had decided to just stay for the one day and so we all headed home around 6 or 7 in the evening with some considering whether to come back again – possibly to stay – later in the week.
On the news later last night and today, though, we read of our fellow protesters on Waterloo bridge being arrested as the police decided to move in later on and in the early hours of this morning. I felt a powerful emotional pull watching the clips of these people (more than 100 so far) being carried off by police. It felt hard (in some ways) being here at home and not being there in support – as well as hearing the criticisms of those who think that all this is at best a waste of time and at worst really damaging both to ordinary human life and even to the cause itself. My wife couldn’t sit at home any longer and has headed back up to London. I have commitments here for a couple of days, though am wondering whether to go back on Friday – Good Friday. ‘Would Jesus have been there?’ – is a question Christians ask themselves when wondering about an action. I feel the spirit of his challenge to institutional power in his turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple just before he too was arrested, tried and executed.
Thankfully we have less to fear but still is it the right action? I still don’t know and perhaps won’t know in the short term. For the moment I think that there is at least a good chance it will turn out to be part of what brings change – which will have to be enough for me for now. But at the moment I am simply caught up in solidarity with those who are still there. There was a bonding of like minded intention with those who were present on the first day. It will be difficult to break this.

dav
Our meditators group in quiet reflection before joining the protests later that morning

Saturday 20th April.
Yesterday (Good Friday) I spent another day and evening in London at the climate protests. And I am finding myself increasingly convinced that this is the right kind of action, for the right reasons and at the right time. The main message is very simply for us to ‘wake up’ to a much greater sense of urgency about this issue than we currently have. And this is so consistent with what I think meditation practice is all about (i.e. waking up to awareness) that it also feels entirely integrated with my own sense of my inner life. It feels more and more as though inner and outer are united in this action.
I wanted to go up on Good Friday as this has always been a very moving and profound day for me. But I have to add now that I have never felt so moved or possibly as close to the rebellious spirit of Christ as I did yesterday when I spent almost the entire three hours when Jesus is traditionally thought to have been on the cross, sitting on Waterloo bridge alongside people who were, one by one, being carried off to prison cells for ‘breaking the law’. There was no violence on either side and no resistance to arrest – only a singer leading us all in gentle spiritual chants to keep courage up and a sense of support and solidarity with those who were willing to be arrested. At one point she also asked us to keep silence for a while as we felt a sense of reconnection with the grounding of our bodies and the grounding of the earth – language I so often use myself when leading others in meditation. But it felt especially poignant – and necessary here.
So, after tentative feelings to start with about how right this activism is it seems only to be growing stronger in me, perhaps for two key reasons: first the urgency of the cause and the failure of other methods to wake people up; and second because of the high levels of both the organisation and the non-violent and democratic ethos of the movement. There were constant appeals to alcohol-free and drug-free non-violence, and all decisions were made through consultation, listening and consensus. The kindness, generosity and non-judging compassion of my fellow ‘rebels’ was very moving indeed.
More will unravel over time I’m sure, but for the moment this just feels very deeply the place to be and the thing to be doing.

XR S & T
Me and Susie looking like we are enjoying ourselves a bit too much at one of the blocked junctions. Come on, this is serious!

Wednesday 24th April.
A final entry (for the moment) on the Climate Change protests since we decided to go up again on Easter day and to camp over till Monday or Tuesday.
It was strange but it just seemed the thing we wanted to be doing for Easter this year so we shifted the family Easter lunch to Easter breakfast and headed up with minimal camping equipment to join the other ‘Rebels’ who had been holding the bases for the whole week up to that point.
It turned out to be a different experience again this time: firstly because we arrived just as three of the four places in London we had been occupying were finally cleared by police – so there was a sense of sadness and loss around; secondly because we were now in a bit of a hiatus as we started to plan where to go from here; and thirdly because my experience of sleeping (or trying to sleep) was really just an experience of it being bloody cold and uncomfortable – so I was also beginning to experience the hardship which others had been experiencing all week.
I rallied a bit on the Monday morning though as I came on the early shift at our junction. As people came and went we sat and drank coffee and talked about ideas, ideologies and shared discomfort. This, of course, was very much part of the experienced as I found myself bonding deeply with new people in this context.  And then at the end of Monday a major meeting of everyone who was now gathered at Marble Arch rallied us further with sense of purpose & direction.
We (me and my wife) did decide, however, that we needed to call it a day and return home at the end of Monday evening leaving what was now a very large crowd to continue the protest, and we have tried to give ourselves space at home to reconnect with ourselves and our inner life through our meditation and to see where all this has left us. And where it seems to have left us is that this has been a life-changing experience. I think we were ready for it which is why we went up to London at all but this has confirmed one of those vital shifts in perspective which seems to change everything.
And this is what I think meditation practice is really all about – supporting the process of profound change in perspective – coming to see differently. And this is so hard, for so many reasons. But it must happen if we as individuals and as a species are to make the very best and most valuable use of our time here on this planet. And if all those who are calling for radical change are right (including scientists, politicians and activists) then this profound shift in our perspective is absolutely vital at this point in our history.
And if this is true, then I feel a renewed calling both to deepen my own meditation practice and to link it more and more with right action in the world.
So – meditation and activism – these feel as though they are where my life has led me to in the last few years. And the events of the last week have brought them together in an extraordinary way.

XR Tim
On our way home on the first day. Still flying the flag.
 

 

 

 

 

 

                       

Living the Mindful Life 5

MEDITATION AND ACTIVISM

There is often a criticism of meditation and those who practise it which suggests that it can be a bit self-centred (all about finding my own peace) and passive (not really responding to the needs of the world).

Both these criticisms are to some extent fair – as in, that is what can happen – although it should also be noted that for some whose lives are in significant turmoil finding their own peace may be the only thing which holds their lives together at all and so should not be criticised.

For many of us, however, finding our own peace is only part of a bigger picture and that for meditation to come into its fullest expression it does need to be integrated with building peace in the world around us.

I have both organised and attended meetings recently which were seeking to ask the same question: is it just that some meditators are also activists or is there a an intrinsic link between the two?

At the meeting I organised, which began with ½ hour of silent meditation, a number of people articulated the importance of meditation for their activism: needing to integrate inner and outer peace-making; needing a way to remain grounded and so not become overwhelmed by the world’s issues; needing to combine activism with deep reflection so that our activism is well thought out and directed; wanting both our activism and our meditation to be holistic rather than piecemeal – so that our whole life might be both meditation and activism, not one on one day and the other on another somehow disconnected from one another.

At the meeting I attended a Buddhist teacher suggest that Meditation and Activism were both really doing the same thing: seeking to wake up to what we have become accustomed to as the status quo, either in our own mental habits or in our political system, and to find ways of interrupting each in order better to support both our individual and our communal well-being.

My own thoughts on the matter are that meditation really could be expected to lead to a number of vital things in relation to activism: first to a deeper awareness of what is really going on in the world; secondly to a greater compassion for those who are suffering as a result; thirdly to a clearer wisdom to see what is the best way to reduce this suffering; and finally to the space and energy to do what needs to be done.

All these suggestions are merely strengthening my sense that meditation and activism not only can go together but possibly must go together – that meditation without activism can be in danger of drifting towards individual passivity and that activism without meditation could just as easily drift towards ineffective, ego fuelled frenetic activity which achieves little except burn out of the individuals involved.

Having said all that it seems to me that neither should be forced or coerced. What was lovely about the meeting I organised was that there were certainly meditator-activists present but also people who saw themselves as mainly one or the other. But being in the same room felt like an important step to increase awareness of the link. No one was pushed to what they should do next but each went away with something to think about. It would seem to me that activism should come freely from deep within the meditator’s heart if it is to come at all. And that activists might even be drawn to meditation as they begin to reflect at deeper levels on what they are doing in the world.

 

Having said that though, it would seem remiss not to mention the particular activism we were considering at both meetings – partly to put some flesh on the concept of activism and partly because it really does seem to tap into probably the greatest issue of our day. And no, it is not Brexit! – but something far more important.

‘Extinction Rebellion’ (www.rebellion.earth) is a movement we will be hearing more of in the coming months. I must leave you to read up for yourselves but in one sentence it is a call to non-violent direct action including civil disobedience in order to put pressure on governments throughout the world to make a step change in attitude to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now declared as a Climate Emergency – that we have 11 years to make radical legislative changes to avert human catastrophe this century, probably kicking in by mid-century. The time for working patiently through normal democratic means and gentle persuasion has run out, they argue, and a different, more urgent kind of response is needed.

Having attended three meetings on the subject now I find I am gradually being persuaded that this group have got it right: that they are well-organised, well-researched, grounded on sound scientific and historical principles and that their passion and sense of urgency is justified. There are local groups, training sessions, a constant reminder about respect and non-violence and a major international initiative planned to start in less than two weeks’ time (starting 15th April) with the aim of disrupting the normal flow of city life in capital cities around the world for up to two weeks.

So, will I see it as an integrated part of my commitment to a contemplative life to go up to London and sit illegally (hopefully with 1000’s of others) in the middle of a normally busy London bridge? At this stage I am increasingly feeling that the answer is, yes.