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.

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Living the mindful life 4

‘Sound, noise and quietness’

Feedback on previous blogs (for which many thanks):

  1. Make it shorter. (Will do!)
  2. What do you actually do on your weekly quiet morning?

So, I’ll leave reflecting on shaping a mindful year to another time and pause to reflect on the weekly quiet morning I keep with my wife at home.

But, first a thought:

Silence is not the absence of noise – but the space in which noise is transformed into sound.

The difference between noise and sound is a concept both in physics (signal to noise ratios) and in music. There is a sense in both that unless there is quietness around the sounds we are trying to engage with we will never truly perceive them. We will only ever hear cacophony – a huge jumble of undifferentiated sounds. There has to be a space, a silence, an absence for us to start perceiving more clearly what is here – what is important – the signal.

So keeping a quiet morning is not just about taking a break from sound – a ‘time out’ from sound and noise but about sensing a wider space around all the sounds which are here in order to perceive more acutely what is present.

This is especially helpful when we come to our own thoughts. As it happens we are never going to be able to ‘take a break’ from these as they will always be there. And, in fact, when we create space through silence they can seem to become louder and more insistent. So, again, the point would be not to try to shut these out but rather to allow a bigger space for them – allow some silence around them so that we can begin to discern the ‘sound’ from the ‘noise’.

This can happen to some degree through meditation. But often in Mindfulness meditation there is a sense of practising mental skills. What we are talking about here will only begin to become apparent when we move on to what we call ‘choice-less awareness’ – simply allowing space for whatever is present in experience to be here without judging it – or running away from it.

But creating spaces in our week for longer periods of quietness can develop this idea of attuning to sound rather than just being a bit blasted by constant noise.

So, for us, the rules are very simple. From wake up until lunch: no talking (and if possible no communication), no working, no music and no ‘devices’. We will each do our own thing through the morning which will be a mixture of meditating, sitting quietly, reading (though being careful not to overdo this), walking. Sometimes I will make bread but one of the most significant experiences is the feeling that nothing is actually required of me – no chores, no tasks, no work, no communication. Just for this one morning, there really is nothing to do. Wow! That feels good.

There are still the noises of the city around us and, of course, the noise of our own minds. But the key is that by dropping quite a few of the normal stimuli we are, in fact, creating just a bit more space for the sounds which remain to find their place.

We have both noticed that our experience of these mornings is sometimes pleasant and sometimes a little bit unsettling. When it is unsettling we try not to worry about this too much but to accept that this is just sometimes the result of having created space for thoughts and feelings without distraction: sometimes there is anxiety around, sometimes there are unresolvable issues present, and sometimes there are fears. Better that these things get a bit of space to breathe than go unnoticed and contribute to the unacknowledged noise and cacophony which is around the rest of the time. And sometimes, through sitting with these less than easy things there are insights. We hear the signal amidst the otherwise relentless noise.

And the results? Well, as I say, immediate ‘results’ can vary – from a quiet peacefulness to a hard-to-pin-down sense of unease. Though one thing I find myself saying these days is that it is the most precious time of my week now – just the mere fact that I know there is built in ‘space’ which is protected and sacred. Over time my feeling is that our quiet morning is contributing enormously to the building up of mindful awareness the rest of the week.

And my sense is that we all need such space however much we manage and however we create it. But we will have to be quite strong and determined to make sure of it. The world around us is much more interested in bombarding us with more and more information in an attempt to get us to buy their wares or subscribe to their opinions. A quiet morning, half morning or single hour once a week where we turn down the noise and are simply present in the quiet will be a wonderful antidote.

Living the Mindful life 3

Shaping a mindful week

In my last blog I reflected on what a mindful day might look like. Well, of course it will be different for everyone but my suggestion was that someone seeking to live a mindful life might try to have three moments in the day when they deliberately connect with mindful awareness. Each of these moments could take just a few minutes or even a few seconds but the value of just stopping and coming back to this moment and then making more of a conscious decision about what to do next can be an invaluable antidote to the automatic mind which can take us through whole days without us quite realising where all the time went. If one of these three was a longer meditation that would be even better but the ‘rule of three’ is a great way to integrate mindfulness into our daily life.

But we can also think in terms of a mindful week. The days of our week will vary quite a lot. But how do we decide what to do and when? In many busy lives there does not seem to be much choice – there is just an endless stream of urgent things to get done and it seems to us that the best we can do is just get going and see how much of my ‘To Do’ list I can get through. For others there is a lot more space with much less pressure and even perhaps too many choices – which can leave you a bit at a loss as to what to do now, today, if everything could possibly be put off till tomorrow.

The other challenge here is to recognise the difference between the urgent an the important. Unless we bring a bit of awareness to our week it can end up being dominated by apparently urgent things – which seem to need attention immediately or as soon as possible – and then we come to the end of another week realising (or worse, not realising) that there are so many things which I really value and which are really important to me which, once again, I do not seem to have had time for. ‘Oh, well, maybe some day – when the children have left home, when I cut down my working hours, when I retire …..’

Well, yes, we can’t do everything now and some things may need to wait for different circumstances but maybe not everything.

So, one way of approaching this dilemma might be to sit down and have a think about those important but non-urgent things and plan them in – actually set aside time when you are going to do them. But some of these things might not so much be single tasks but on-going things I would like to be a part of my life. Like: reading; socialising; engaging with the arts; exercise/sport/yoga; support for some cherished cause; spending time on my hobby; engaging with a spiritual community. And if we are seeking to live the mindful life we might add: time for a bit longer meditation; time for quiet and doing nothing; time in nature.

All of these things, however good and important, can get squeezed out by a week dominated by the ‘To Do’ list of urgent tasks.

So what I have decided to do is to give my week a bit of a shape – so that not every day is the same and so that there are days and times for task achievement and there are days and times for specific other activities. I try not to make this too rigid but I do try to bring a reasonable amount of seriousness to my own intentions. For instance, if I decide that Saturday, for me, is not a working day then I actually instil in myself  almost a sense of obligation not to work. This is an important day – not just a day off work – but a day for something else which is equally (if not more) important. This is how I manage to dispel any guilt or anxiety about not doing work tasks when, in fact, of course, I could be doing them. I am raising the status of my Saturday not just to a day of rest from work but to something much more important than that. This is a sacred day – as indeed in the Jewish tradition it is – let me honour what kind of a day this is and what it is for.

Each of us, of course will have to work with our own week and the possibilities which it affords. But just as an example here is the weekly pattern I am trying to keep for myself.

First I have my list of important things and these are:

  • work – of course – I need to earn a living
  • extended times for mindfulness practice, silence and solitude
  • serious intellectual reading
  • music
  • home making (not ‘house work’!)
  • body care (exercise, yoga, walking)
  • cooking – especially bread making
  • the arts
  • inviting people to meals
  • writing

So, first, work. And the question many of us have even forgotten to ask is: so how many days do I want to work – or perhaps, how many days do I need to work in order to live the lifestyle I choose to live. It can be helpful putting it this way as it may be that I could live more simply in order to be able to work less hours. We may be sacrificing nice things or foreign holidays but many will report greater on-going happiness with this approach. Anyway I have decided to work four days a week – which happens to be possible (mostly) for me in my current circumstances. So Monday to Thursday are my working days and, as far as possible (which isn’t always) I keep my working life within these days.

So – three-day weekend? Well, I don’t quite see it like that but rather try to bring a sense of specific intention to each of the other days. These are not three days off so much as three sacred days each with a particular flavour and intention to them.

For instance, Friday morning I keep as a quite morning: no emails, computers, music, mobile phones and no chatting with whoever is at home with me. And this is (usually) great. I tend to take a bit more time over meditation practice, maybe do a bit of reading around mindfulness and take the dog for a short walk. But also I spend time just sitting. The sense that there is simply nothing to do – nothing to get done (because this is not the time for it) is truly liberating and the most wonderful experience. Wow! – just one morning in the week where I can say to all those thoughts about all that needs to be done, ‘yes, but not now – now is not the time’, seems to open up new worlds of experience for me. This is my favourite time in my whole week. But if not a whole morning, what about two hours – one hour even. Start with whatever is possible and then build from there.

Friday evening I thought might be the time for offering hospitality in our home. And I am wanting not to make so much of a big deal about this. Rather just that we’re having a meal anyway – who can we ask to join us. And again, not slavishly every week but sometimes.

Saturday does seem to become a bit of a task (though not paid work) day as, of course, you do need time set aside for this. But exchanging the label ‘house work’ for ‘home making’ can give a very different feel to much of what needs to be done.

Sunday, currently, is my time for serious reading – and bread-making. I find I am one who really wants to engage with ideas. But I need a sense of space to be able to do this. Sunday is the space I try to keep for doing this.

And Sunday evening has become the time for my regular (though not only) engagement with the arts. I have set up a small cinema club whereby about once a month I look at the films which are timed for around 6pm in our local cinema, choose one and email ‘club’ members that this is the one we shall be going to this month. And those who come meet in a nearby hostelry to discuss it afterwards.

So, you get the picture? I have managed to allocate certain times of the week for certain activities – and in this way these activities do actually happen – rather than may happen one day when I have more time. If you do this for yourself it probably needs to be seen as a bit of a trial and error process in order to find out what actually works for you and what is actually possible. But the principle can be the same – certain days of the week (or perhaps certain evenings of the week) have certain characteristics and can be dedicated to different aspects of a healthy balanced life. Effectively we are bringing mindfulness to the way we live our week.

One final point, though, which neatly leads me into what will probably become next month’s blog – you will notice that I have not covered everything in my list in the week I have described. Actually, exercise and some writing and some music does happen during a normal week. But the truth is, just as you can’t fit everything you value in life into each day, you can’t fit it into a single week either. So we also need a longer view – a mindful year, where we might decide that we spend a bit more time doing certain activities in different months or different seasons of the year. But more thoughts on this next time.

Living the Mindful Life 2

RULES OF THREE

Three Golden Rules

I had planned to write this blog in December but then I was a bit late and decided instead that a New Year blog might be better timing. However I now feel in danger of being only one amongst a thousand voices exhorting us to start new things or change our lives in some way for the new year. We can get a bit weary with all this and possibly a bit cynical if we have tried things in the past and they have either not delivered the hoped for results or we just haven’t kept them up beyond the end of January. So, I wonder, how can an approach to the new year have a bit more substance and depth and lead to real, long term life changes? And how might we bring such an approach to an aspiration to live the mindful life?

A friend who was writing a piece on this subject asked for suggestions so I offered my own three ‘Golden Rules’ which I always share at the end of any mindfulness course I teach. And these are:

  1. Be in it for the long term
  • Think in terms of changes that you are going to make which will form a basis for the very long term. This will help counteract the ‘quick fix’ approach which so often becomes the ‘quick fail’ result.
  1. Do something every day however little
  • What we are seeking to do in our lives is to build new habits – and habits seem to take root when they are daily. So concentrate less on how much but more on how often – and then build from there.
  1. Focus on what you have done and not on what you haven’t
  • We are so easily drawn to awareness of the negative – our ‘failures’. In some ways this is interesting but it can tend to bring down our mood and motivation. So, whatever we have done, however small it seems to us, celebrate this – and then build from here.

And one more?

I think that probably three is quite enough golden rules but I do like a fellow mindfulness teacher’s additional one which is to encourage people to be creative with their mindfulness practice. Make it playful – bring curiosity and a sense of adventure to what you plan to do. Bring a ‘what have I got to lose by having a go’ attitude to it. In fact I think this ‘4th’ Golden Rule could actually be the one which colours all of the others – an underlying flavour to all that we do. This is the way that conscientious types can avoid getting heavy about it all – and creative types can feel it is part of their creative life and so keep persevering.

 

Three times a day?

But how about deciding what to do?

I have two or three things I would like to start up this year which I have declared when people have asked me about my new year resolutions. But I am aware that there is in fact a deeper longing in me which I want to make my true intention for the year and that is simply to take a year to focus on and deepen my mindfulness practice and my mindful life. I have been through a year of fairly tumultuous transition. The year ahead, though, is looking fairly stable – as far as a freelance life can be – and so my yearning is for a deepening, a bedding in, an enriching of what is already here.

And this, for me, starts with my daily practice. I have wanted to set up some sort of routine for my practice which is sustainable and which becomes, over time, the steady rhythm of my day and my week. Yes, I know there will always be times when practice will be really difficult and times when I find I really don’t want to do it but my aim is to find some way that practisng mindfulness will become as natural a part of my day as cleaning my teeth. I want it to be part of the grain of my day – not a big deal but just something I do. I want to have a practice which, in accordance with Golden Rule no. 1, will set me up for the long term.

Golden Rule no. 2, though, suggests that whatever we do it needs to be daily. But I am going to stretch this to shocking levels now and suggest thinking more in terms of three times a day. But before you switch off completely let me explain what this might mean – and then share what I try to do myself. As I often try to remind people, what we are hoping to become is not good meditators but to be more mindful people throughout the day. So, practising once a day is good for building up internal habits but we also want to connect these habits to the ordinary activities of our day. And it seems to me that the longer ago I was practising, the less mindful I am. So, what I really need is ‘top ups’ through the day. And, quite liking the number three, I have suggested to myself that I would like to aim for three mindful moments each day. And ‘moments’ could be the key word here because coming back to oneself or remembering what I was experiencing in my morning mindfulness practice actually may only take a moment. But it nevertheless does need an effort to bring it back to mind. So, my suggestion is to think in terms of three moments each day where we connect with our mindfulness practice. It would be good if one of these was a significant formal practice (anything from 15 to 40 mins) but the other two could really be quite brief (3 to 5 mins) and could take a number of forms: three minute breathing space just before breaking for lunch; a quiet moment with coffee after lunch; stop and read a poem with your mid-afternoon cup of tea; take three mindful breaths just before getting out of the car to go into the house at the end of the day’s work; or any of the ‘habit releasers’ or ‘mindful activities’ which many of us have read about in Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book, ‘Mindfulness’.

My own pattern is to have a longer practice first thing in the morning (this time has always worked best for me but lunchtime or evening is clearly best for others); then to stop 10 or 15 mins before lunch for a shorter practice; and then (and I can do this now that our family is grown) come back for an early evening meditation of anything from 15 to 30 mins.

Some will wonder i) how I fit all this in and ii) how I get anything else done. And my normal answer to i) is, well I don’t always, especially if I am not at home at those times. But this continues to be my intention and remains, somehow, my sense of rhythm of the my day. And my answer to ii) is that, because of the focus, clarity and spacious feeling this brings to my inner life, I actually feel I get more done – or perhaps more effective and useful things done.

Imperfection.

Finally, having shared two lots of three, I rather feel I need a third set to complete the picture. But I haven’t got one – so perhaps we can enjoy the sense of incompleteness here for this is what we will have to get used to as we seek to live the mindful life. Incompleteness, unsatisfactory-ness, imperfection. These will be our companions along the way. We can see them as problems. Or we can see them as friends gently leading us forward into new wonders. I think I’ll go for the latter.

And so may I wish you a very imperfect New Year – but one which has a rich seem of beauty and joy running through it.

Living the mindful life

 

At the Garn

Me being mindful – or are those sausages burning? 

So, what does this ‘living the mindful life’ really mean? And how does it relate to what some would call the ‘spiritual life’?

The picture above is taken from a short break I spent at the beautiful Garn Farm (see http://www.warmthandwonder.co.uk) where I give the impression of being fairly chilled – or maybe just far, far away. But what you don’t know, of course, is what is actually going on in my mind at the time. To be honest I can’t remember but I do know that even when we ‘get away’ we take our own stresses, worries and fears with us and they can surface and niggle at us rather persistently – especially when we have less to distract us.

Living with intention.

Living this mindful life, then, is not just about doing less or having more free time but about the intention we bring to the whole of life. And so first, perhaps, to think about what my intention really is – what am I doing this for? – what drew me to mindfulness in the first place? It may be that something simple and practical drew me like the desire to manage stress, depression or anxiety – or to find help with some life issue. In which case mindfulness has a lot to offer and it is really worth recommitting to on a regular basis as we call to mind how it has helped us in the past.

But my own thoughts nowadays are moving beyond this initial ‘self-help’ or therapeutic value of mindfulness to something more to do with the whole of my life. Certainly mindfulness has transformed the way I manage stress and low mood but is there some greater purpose beyond being less stressed? Why am I seeking to be less stressed anyway? What is all this leading to?

For me, the bigger picture is connected with the key means by which stress reduction comes, which is cultivating awareness – deep inner awareness of all that it means to be human, to live in relationship with other humans and, indeed, with the rest of nature. What is it really all about and, more importantly, how should we live? There are, of course, countless philosophical and theological answers to such questions but mindfulness offers something different. Mindful awareness is not just understanding but something more experiential, more immediate, more lived, more felt. And it is not something that just happens in the head but happens in the whole body and even in the space between bodies. Mindful awareness has the ability to transform the whole of life – in our moment by moment experience.

I have ringing in my ears various grand sounding intentions for life which I think started in rock poetry: ‘I want to grow old before I die’ -vs- ‘I want to die before I grow old’. But my intention is simply this: I want to wake up before I die. I want to live as fully and as richly and as compassionately as it is possible for me to live and I want to share this journey with as many others as possible – and in this way to make my own small contribution to transforming the world. That’s what I want – that’s what I am in it for and that’s why I get up in the morning and meditate – because I see this as a key part of the picture.

For many, this is simply what spirituality means to them: connecting with a key and fundamental life purpose and then finding the means to live it out creatively. Many with spiritual or religious backgrounds will take a lead from their own faith and scriptures and will want to relate such a calling to their own theological roots. But still there will be a sense of particularity about our own part – our own ‘call’ as some would put it. And some slant on ‘waking up – to life in all its fullness’ will be a key part, if not the key part, in most positive spiritual traditions.

Structure.

And so, when I have recognised my deepest intentions for life, this leads to the thought of setting a structure for my life which supports this intention. Much more on this in future blogs but very simply and very basically, when I have found and clarified my intention, the next stage is to consider every aspect of my life as far as is possible within my own limits and ask the question, does this support or take away from what I truly long for? Am I doing this thing or that thing out of habit, because of long forgotten expectations of others, out of fear or anxiety or because it truly supports the main objectives in my life. This is a difficult, often complex and potentially long term process. But if we don’t start exploring this question now then we may forever remain stuck in structures which are only ever going to thwart the life within us. Some of us may feel we have very few choices in life, so heavy are our commitments. But the trick is to notice even those few and to exploit them to the full.

Not long ago I made a very big choice in life and stopped working for the institution I had served for a quarter of a century (wow – put it like that and it sounds quite big). I continue to work quite hard but one of the things this has done for me is to give me a few more choices in how I structure my life. This feels good. In a sense I am starting again and almost everything I do can come under the scrutiny of ‘does this serve or thwart my deepest intentions for life?’. In future blogs I want to share some of how this has been going and in this way to open up possibilities to reflect on as to the way we live our lives and how mindfulness can become a way of life for us and not just a thing we occasionally do – or worse, just one more thing we feel we ought to do!