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.

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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.

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.