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!

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.