Mindful Hope 1

MINDFUL HOPE – PART 1: Despair 

DESPAIR
I have been pondering for a while about making hope the theme of a New Year’s blog. The trouble is that now we have got here I am not feeling very hopeful at all. (Ed. but do keep reading, this does get better – a bit).  After a year of climate change protesting & campaigning we have elected a government who seems by a long way the least committed to tackling the issue. There is no Green New Deal, no massive investment in housing nor any kind of rhetoric about Britain’s or the world’s poverty. I may be proved wrong, of course, (more than happy to be) but the populist rhetoric I am hearing seems skin deep at most and currently I am finding it very difficult to feel hopeful.

This may seem a bit defeatist and dispirited but I am at least partially encouraged by Jim Bendell in his blogs about ‘Deep Adaptation’ (do look for his You Tube video) where he suggests that we do actually need to despair – and that despair (honest, engaged despair), is a key part of our awakening to transformation. Perhaps despair then, and the process of grieving that goes with it, is the only fertile ground for true hope which transforms rather than the vague hope which seems more about putting our heads in the sand and ‘hoping’ danger will pass or that someone else will fix things (e.g. the government, technology, business etc.) – and which changes nothing. Powerfully, the narrative of  Christ’s death includes a period of utter despair whereby, if you were there at the time rather than looking back having read the end of the story, there really was utter emptiness and failure – there really was no way forward. We tend to skim over such phases all too quickly but perhaps we need to dwell here a little longer. Perhaps only here, in our despair, will we find the seeds of the kind of hope which will transform.

I am very conscious that we need to heed radical theologian and activist Dorothee Soelle’s warning that despair is the ‘luxury of the rich’ – that only the rich can indulge in despair without actually starving. So I am clear that such despair needs to be active and honest as opposed to vague, passive and somewhat self-indulgent. But it also seems to me that a hope which hasn’t properly faced the facts – and grieved over them – is just as much a luxury indulged in only by those who are most protected from the real effects of those facts.

So, right now I have no happy ending or very many hopeful thoughts. All I have is a sense that we need a means by which we can be with our despair without giving up – without turning back either to passivity or to aggression. I know that one thing that will be key for me in this is to keep returning to silence in meditation but at the same time to stay in contact with others so that we can support one another through our despair and begin to watch together to see what emerges from it – and how all this may lead us to renewed action.

And so my intention this new year is twofold: i) to seek a deeper silence though my mindfulness practice and in this way to explore as honestly as I can my own sense of despair – to go up close, to look hard, to ponder deeply, to try not to look away too soon – and perhaps in future blogs I can share what I discover in the silence; and ii) when I am with others to try both to offer solidarity where others feel the same despair but also to look for the seeds of genuine hope in the lives of those who are seeing things which I am not yet seeing. I’m not sure if this will make me a very good dinner guest. But perhaps that is not the point.

SEEDS OF HOPE (RESOURCES)
But on this last point – learning to see the seeds of genuine hope in the lives of others – the best thing I can do is to point you towards a series of blogs called ‘Hope’s Work’ by David Gee who I have been getting to know recently. The hope he is identifying is what he has come to see in the lives of people who are fully engaged and active in the world often against all the odds. The hope he discovers in these people is powerful – both authentic and practical. So, if I have given permission to despair, he will lead you back to hope. Do read them, they really are excellent. Here is the link:
https://hopeswork.org/blog/

Another recommendation which manages to weave both despair and hope in an environmental context is Richard Powers’ monumental novel, The Overstory. It is an extraordinary piece of work in which Trees, rather than Humans, are the real protagonists even though in the narrative we engage with these extraordinary beings through the rich lives of nine very different humans. I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel despair or hope at the end. But perhaps the weaving of the two is what makes it such a powerful read:
The Overstory

On a slightly different note, you might also be interested in a podcast interview I recorded with retired BBC journalist and presenter, Mike Wooldridge for a series called ‘Things Unseen – interviews with people with unusual faith perspectives’. He wanted to explore with me my journey from science graduate to vicar, to mindfulness teacher and then to leaving being a vicar. It is personal and reasonably intimate but might serve as a helpful alternative view of faith for some. Here is the link:
https://www.thingsunseen.co.uk/podcasts/mindfulness-and-faith-do-they-mix/

Finally a poem for perspective… Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
 

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things

 

 

 

 

Living the mindful life 12

So, what is ‘normal’ anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how people disagree recently, for instance over political issues such as our response to climate change and other matters and it has occurred to me that a person’s view and consequent arguments will often be profoundly affected by what they regard as ‘normal’. The trouble is that this is often (usually?) implicit rather than explicit in any given conversation and so quite difficult to engage with – and yet it affects everything.

So, what is normal, then? Well, I suppose what I am implying is that we all have a slightly and sometimes radically different sense of what ‘normal’ is but that it will not be until we ask this question of ourselves that we will begin to get underneath some of the apparently intractable arguments we tend to get into. And, for me, this is where mindfulness comes in.

One of the basic theories underlying mindfulness in the psychological tradition is that we all have ‘conditioned’ minds which, mostly through our education, upbringing and environment, have come to accept a certain set of circumstances as normal. In other words we have become so used to how things seem to be that we have ceased to ask how else they could be. In fact we may even fight to keep things as they are even if they are not supporting our well-being just because they seem, well, ‘normal’ to us – they seem familiar and so we feel safe with them.

About half way through any mindfulness course we start to pay some attention to the thought patterns in our minds. This involves grounding our attention in the body and then, from this perspective as it were, starting to watch thoughts and thought patterns come and go. We see if it is possible not to react to or get caught up with these thoughts but rather just to become familiar with them.

This can be quite a revelation for some of us. Firstly some people declare their amazement at just how many thoughts there are – and how they just keep coming! But then there begins to be the recognition of what kinds of thoughts or what subjects of thoughts seem to prevail. ‘I seem to be always planning my day’ says one, or another, ‘my mind keeps going back to this particular incident or issue’. Or ‘I keep having these quite negative thoughts about myself whenever I am stressed’.

The key bit of teaching we slot in here as soon as people have started to notice these thoughts coming and going is this: that thoughts are not facts – they are just mental events coming and going in the mind; some of them bear some relation to reality but they are not an exact representation of reality and are sometimes a very inexact representation. But nevertheless, these are the thoughts and thought patterns we have become used to – these, for us are our ‘normal’.

For many this comes as liberating – especially those plagued by anxious or negative thoughts. For others it is disturbing as they gradually realise that some of the things they have come to feel are self-evidently true are not that at all but rather they are just what I have come to accept as normal because of my upbringing, my education and my life experience.

So, with a general election looming and debates about the right way to respond to climate change – including whether Extinction Rebellion’s strategy and methods are good ones, this becomes a very poignant question: to what extent are my ideas, arguments and voting intentions shaped by my implicit, unacknowledged sense of what is ‘normal’?

Limiting myself to Extinction Rebellion for a moment, though, what this movement, it seems to me, is trying to say is that what we have come to accept as normal, should no longer be accepted as normal: things will nor sort themselves out as they normally do; the normal political processes will not work in this case; our normal way of life, perhaps with just a bit of tweaking, can no longer be seen as normal. So (the argument goes) a different kind of action/protest is needed in order to shift the common mindset of what is actually normal in this case.

These are bold suggestions and often fall on deaf or resistant ears. And I, for one, am keen to keep these as open questions rather than assume we in XR know all the answers. But what I do feel committed to is the process of questioning myself and what I have come to accept as normal in my own thinking and in how I see the world.

So it just may be that it is not new information I need (even though information has its place) but to come to see the world in a new way. And this involves questioning deeply and honestly what I have come to accept as ‘normal’.

Living the Mindful life 11

Mindfulness and environmental activism: events, reflections.

  1. Events

First, what happened in these last two weeks of climate protests with Extinction Rebellion (XR)? Well, most will have seen the overall picture on various news outlets – though it depends which outlet you engage with as to what sort of an impression you get. But, here, the perspective of a group of meditators from various religious and non-religious traditions….

We now have two Oxford XR meditators groups who meet monthly together to: meditate together; share our inner responses to the idea of activism and ‘illegal’ protesting; and then do some planning for the forthcoming protests or outreach events. These are both lovely groups where inner experience is valued as much as outer action and where all can feel their way towards the right kind of and the right level of engagement for them. In terms of joining in the protests we had wondered what our groups could offer in particular and we felt we could perhaps enable some kind of meditation to happen actually in the midst of the protests. Two members subsequently created a banner which read ‘Meditation here, now: all welcome’ in the hope that we might be able to do just this at some point in the days when we are there as a group.

Our group tends to be mostly second level rather than ‘front line’ with only one or two willing to risk arrest – so, really, really not the real heroes. But nevertheless there were a good many of us present at the first moment we started to occupy Whitehall just at the end of Downing Street. This was perhaps our most nervy moment as the police tried to hustle us out of the way before we had even had a chance to sit down. But sit down we did and thankfully there were suddenly enough of us sitting in the road for the police to realise they would need to back off as they just didn’t have the numbers to cope. (Even with thousands of extra police drafted in they were particularly stretched by our seeking to occupy 12 different sites).

So began a stalemate which lasted most of the first day. It was fairly peaceful for this period but still inner tensions are constant as you never know when things might change either with police moving in more forcefully or ‘rogue’ elements in our own ranks causing trouble – both of which happened later on in the day.

So, with two or three hundred occupying the road, mostly sitting and the police standing back for the moment we thought we would have a go at inviting people to meditate in the road. Two of us held the banner up, our group sat in a small circle and I invited anyone nearby to join us with some very basic suggestions about what meditation is. And, it seemed, quite a number in the vicinity turned towards us and closed their eyes for the 10 minutes that we sat. At the end someone suggested we do this every hour on the hour which we readily agreed to. This was then advertised at the ‘tension de-escalation’ talk and the next time we did it there were probably 30 people in the vicinity meditating with us – several saying how much they valued it and that they hoped to join us again in an hour. It was very moving to see and felt like a very tangible contribution to our regularly expressed intention to manage inner emotions and to continuously de-escalate tension so that our actions remain non-violent at every level of our experience. At one point a policeman stood close and listened in to my introduction to the meditation. I think maybe he was listening in to see if he could gain some information about our mischievous strategies. But all he heard was the injunction to remain peaceful and non-violent and to practice cultivating good-will both to our fellow protesters and to the police around us. I wonder what he reported back to his colleagues! On the Wednesday I received an appreciative text from a stranger asking where we would be meditating that day.

XR meditators London 2

Our group meditating in Whitehall

 

Meditators at Charing Cross

A larger group meditating at Charring Cross station

The block in Whitehall lasted three days. Tuesday was much the same but Wednesday was much more tense as the police were arresting their last few people and were hoping they might then be able to clear the area. I was the only one of our group present so joined in the gently defiant chanting of the crowd until, in the midst of a bit of a melee, I was confronted directly, personally and quite aggressively by one policeman, who ordered me to move with threat of immediate arrest and so, sadly, I felt I had to leave the site. I felt quite unsettled by this, never having relished the experience of a stern telling off by a tall, aggressive, angry male but there was also a part of me that genuinely felt for the policeman in this very awkward role and the extremely long shifts they were being ordered to do. I quietly hoped we might meet again in more peaceful circumstances and recognise the goodness and humanity in each other. But still, at the time, even this minor confrontation meant I needed to sit down with a friend for a bit to get myself back together.

The only other day I managed to get to London was for the peaceful procession 20,000 of us made down Oxford Street on the middle Saturday afternoon. It felt good to engage in something a bit more celebratory and to feel the swelling numbers of those prepared to turn out even in the persistent rain. And, as I say, a good way to sign off having mostly only experienced stand off and tension on my other two days.

XR march

  1. Reflections:

There is too much really to reflect on in a short piece so all I feel I can do is relate the various questions that have been arising in me through the two weeks.

The whole point of trying to link activism with meditation is to bear witness to the integrity of the inner and the outer life. Actually there is no divide and so we cause damage to ourselves if we act as if there is. Our outer actions should be an expression of our inner life and vice versa. Our inner peacefulness should have its expression in our action in the world. So what about this tension that is set up when peace loving people start breaking the laws of the land and, by our actions, inevitably create tension? And it does, indeed, feel strange – especially to those of us who are not actually natural rebels having been brought up privileged within the established order and, along the way, having learned that our privilege is dependent on our towing the line of the established order. Now we are breaking the very laws which have kept that established order (and our privilege) in place. And there have been many moments along the way where many of us feel the doubts within, so much is all this against our natural inclinations and personalities. But what keeps coming to save me in this dilemma is the constant stream of news stories and research which remind us that there is a much, much bigger picture and that we must look up from our narrow perspectives on life and start to see what really matters for humanity. Then we connect with a deeper moral code which may indeed include breaking the rules of a lesser moral system even if this does create tension.

….. ‘in my judgement’ – as my friend who opposes all we do reminds me. Yes, in my judgement. But then we are all making judgements. Only history will vindicate one judgement or the other but in the meantime we make choices with as much honesty, integrity and courage as we can muster. And if this entails one part of us acting in contravention to the instinct of another part, then there is quite some work to do to continue to hold the integrity of the whole person. This, for me is the vital work of both meditation and thoughtful conversation in the days after and I particularly look forward to reconnecting with my group in a couple of weeks’ time to do just this.

Other questions which have rightly emerged during this time are: when is meditation avoidance and when is it part of the rebellion?; and when is activism legitimate moral action for a better world and when is it ego fuelled nuisance?

The trouble is that there are no fixed answers to these questions. It only seems to me that it is important to keep on asking them in relation to every movement and in every action within that movement. A checklist from the Buddhist tradition is to ask three questions: is there right motivation?; is it a right action?; and is there a right result? These, too are questions we need to keep asking ourselves.

But I am left with the simple fact that some of the greatest peace-loving (and peace-making) figures in history have turned to direct action when they felt it was appropriate, including Jesus who, you could argue was actually more violent and more shouty than us in his challenge to an oppressive and exclusive religious and economic system. So the one thing I think we can’t do is rule out this sort of activism all together.

But we do need to keep on asking honest questions – and some of those questions will become clear only as we persevere with our simple intention to remain present to all that is through our meditation practice.

Susie Seeding change

My fellow meditator: ‘seeding change, one breath at a time’.

Living the mindful life 10

BLOG: DE-MOTIVATION

Last month I started writing on the subject of motivation for practising mindfulness or any other kind of meditation. So this month I thought it might be worth exploring its opposite, de-motivation, which probably boils down to the question, ‘if I know and accept the science, and perhaps have even experienced some of the benefits of practising mindfulness then why don’t I practice more or more often?’

Well, yes – why indeed! Put starkly like that I can even start to feel there is something a bit odd about my not practising. But actually there is nothing odd about this at all. It is very human for a number of reasons and perhaps when we look more closely at these reasons it might help us to work round them. In fact, the fact of my not practising much can even be the start of my going deeper with mindfulness if I can start to bring a curious awareness rather than a helpless judging attitude to what is going on.

It is a huge subject, though. But here are just a few pointers from my own experience and through experience of teaching. So, four common de-motivators:

  1. Doubt.

It may be that I am persuaded intellectually that practising will have benefits in my life but that at some other level I am experiencing doubt. In other words I don’t really believe that it is helping. Or I don’t believe that it matters that I practise regularly. Or I’m not yet convinced that it was the meditation itself which had whatever effect it did have on me. Or it may have helped in the past but perhaps not now. Etc. etc. etc.

These, of course, are thoughts which the mind is generating and they may not be conscious thoughts – you may not be fully aware you are thinking them. But the best way, it seems to me, is to confront them head on and realise that there are all sorts of reasons why the mind is generating such thoughts which may have very little relation to whether they are true.

Once I have started to notice that there are these sorts of thoughts around I can either try to weigh them up a bit more carefully against the evidence or, perhaps more helpfully, I can just put them all to one side (saying to myself – ‘ah, here are doubts again – this is normal!’) and simply get on with the actual experiment – which is to keep practising and see what happens over time.

  1. Impatience.

This is a difficult one but is usually linked with the sense of wanting some particular result within some particular time frame. And if it doesn’t come I am de-motivated. But mindfulness doesn’t work like that – especially if I am linking it with some kind of self-improvement programme. It may be reasonable to want some sort of evidence in my own life that this is worth doing, but if I get caught up with this while I am practising or especially when I am deciding whether to practice I am bound to experience impatience.

The antidote to impatience is to see if I can practice just for the sake of practising and without any particular desired outcome on the table. If and when I notice changes in my life then this becomes an added delight and the often long periods where nothing particularly seems to be changing can be encountered with patience and peace. All growth is seasonal – there are times when the seed is lying dormant but this doesn’t mean it is dead.

As Jack Kornfield says, ‘turns out that meditation practice is not about the perfection (or improvement) of self but about the perfection of love’ – which is altogether more mysterious.

  1. Low self-esteem.

Often people talk about simply not having time to practice in a busy day. But I have always felt that the real question here is the matter of priority and not time available. As one member of one of my classes put it, ‘I seem always to have time to brush my teeth, however busy I am’. Others may become aware of the fact that they always find time for on-line social networking – however busy they are.

So, if it is more about my priorities in life, then why am I not prioritising something which I know is good for my mental health and well-being. Well, my suspicion is that the problem here for many of us is quite simply my own low self-esteem. I don’t believe I am ‘worth it’. I worry that doing something for myself is somehow wrong or should at least be very low on my priority list. And if it is low on the list there will almost always be something else which I regard as more important at the time. And then very quickly I get out of the habit, find other, often less effective ways of functioning and gradually my practice erodes.

So, really worth looking at this issue of my sense of my own worth. Does it make any sense to put my own needs so low on my list? Where will I end up if I constantly do this? Can I really care for others if I don’t care for myself? Perhaps this is a chicken & egg situation and it will be that taking more time for myself will help my self-esteem to recover.

  1. Negative experience.

Sometimes we all have experiences with meditation which we do not find pleasant or can be quite challenging. If you have had significant negative experiences it may well be worth talking to an experienced teacher to try to explore what is going on. But for most of us difficulty in meditation is simply par for the course. But difficult experiences can leave us with a reluctance to come back to meditation again. What if it happens again? Does this one bad experience mean that I am doing it wrong? Etc. And we can set up all sorts of negative anticipations which come together to prevent us from coming back to meditation.

Well, once again, we need simply to bring some level of curious interest to what is going on here. And with the one proviso given above we may want to encourage ourselves that a) difficulty happens when meditating and that this is sometimes when the most growth is happening (rather than something going wrong) and b) that it may not happen this time just because it happened last time.

As you can imagine, there is much to explore in terms of de-motivation. But I hope these few thoughts may be a helpful start.

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!