Mindful Hope 3

HOPE 3: IN TROUBLED TIMES

Things have changed rather radically since last month when I planned the subject matter for this 3rd blog on Mindfulness and Hope. However, it seems to me that if what I was planning was authentic at all then it would be relevant for any time. So I have decided to follow the plan but tweak it for the current situation as far as I can.

But just a note first, that if you are looking for something which more directly offers support for the anxiety many of us are experiencing as we sit at home – alone or with others – then I have written something which you can find on the ‘Troubled times’ section on this web-site.

On hope, though, last month I talked about the different kinds of awareness that humans are capable of and how mindfulness meditation can help us to cultivate that kind of awareness which both keeps us connected with all that is going on but also keeps the wider perspective of space and time. And I suggested that it is this wider perspective which enables us to engage in hope rather than be overwhelmed and demotivated.

But there are also things we can intentionally do in the midst of it all to help to cultivate this kind of awareness and this kind of hope. And there are three things in particular that I believe can help with this – and specifically have helped me over the last few months.

  1. Community

When I sit alone thinking, I can very easily start to feel negative, alone, frustrated and  powerless which can make me want to cut off further from engagement. So, isolation makes me want to isolate even further.

But when I have been able to gather with others, especially those who share something of a common vision, my sense of hope has noticeably returned. And there are a number of things at play here. First I am reminded of our common humanity – that we are in this together and that we all experience albeit different versions of the same thing. Secondly, it draws me out of myself and stirs compassion in me for others. And thirdly, it reminds me that together we can actually do something worthwhile even if it is still small. All these have been sources of hope for me in recent months.

There is obvious difficulty with this in these days of restricted physical interaction but if we keep the principles in mind we may find means of engaging with people in ways that kindle hope in us. So, it may be only email, phone calls, walks in the park (2 meters apart!), or on-line meetings if you can do that sort of thing, but if, each time we engage with others, we keep these three things in mind (sensing our common experience, allowing compassion, and agreeing to do something however small) then we can use all these interactions to kindle the hope we need in these times.

In fact it is worth noting that we may even find we are engaging more with our fellow humans in the midst of this. For instance I have set up an email support group for our part of our street which is experiencing lots of activity and messages of care and support, and I’ve knocked on some of my neighbours doors for the first time since I moved in.

  1. Nature

Whatever access to the rest of nature you have (garden, park, or a plant in your house), paying some mindful attention in nature can have a very powerful affect on our disposition and on our perspective.

The thing is (as David Gee articulates so well in his blog – see link in ‘resources’) however awful all this is for humans, it is still, actually, part of nature doing what nature does. There is suffering in nature – sometimes devastating suffering. There is great loss and destruction at times and there will be the profoundest of grief to be experienced in the midst of it.

But as we pay a bit of attention to our wider context – that we humans are part of an inconceivably vast existence we call ‘nature’ – then we are reminded that all nature is ebb and flow, that this too shall pass, that there is no fundamental evil at work here seeking to undermine human goodness, and that, in the midst of this therefore, anything we do to relieve the suffering of ourselves and of others is worth doing.

So, it might be worth saying, then, that when you are out for a walk, if you are able to do this, bring some real attentiveness to where you are and the wonder of the smells, the colours, the shapes and the touch of all that is around you. Let us wonder at nature and the fact that we are a part of it.

DSC_0006nature walk 2

  1. Action

I like to remind people that mindful awareness, which some people call ‘being mode’, is not about not doing things but rather it is about cultivating the kind of awareness which enables wiser doing.

So, there is the kind of doing which is unreflective, reactionary and ‘driven’ which may decrease hope as it raises anxiety and adds to frustration. But there is also wise action which can hugely increase our sense of agency and which will, in turn, cultivate hope.

In a sense we need hope to be able to act like this. But if we act out of hope rather than out of frustration or despair, then whatever hope we do have will be strengthened.

The usual problem, though, is that of overwhelm. What can I possibly do in the face of such an enormous challenge with my limited resources and now with these new restrictions?

The important thing here, though, is not to get too caught up in the results of what we are doing but rather to focus on the value of the action in itself.

So the more helpful questions to reflect on might be:

  1. What is actually happening right now?
  2. What gifts/resources do I actually have?
  3. So, what small thing can I do to contribute?
  4. And who can I do it with?

All these questions warrant a bit of mindful attention in themselves. But if we do, we might actually end up with a clearer idea of what is possible for me and perhaps a greater sense of the value in what I am offering.

And all this will encourage hope to sustain and grow. And hope is going to be absolutely vital in the coming months. So let us seek to cultivate it now.

Mindful Hope 2

Hope Part 2: Kinds of Awareness

Having explored (in last month’s blog) how despair can sometimes take hold of us, some might ask then, is there a problem here which is actually caused by mindfulness?

In other words you could argue that mindfulness is about awareness and that greater awareness of the world and of its problems on the whole do not lead to hope at all. And that the only way to stay positive is to avoid too much awareness or at least to be a bit more selective about what news I take note of. I have heard people talking recently about not reading the news at all. But conversely I was moved by one person saying that she felt she must keep looking – somehow. So, how?

Well, mindfulness talks about two distinct modes of awareness – of paying attention in the world – which relate to two different modes of brain activity. I find this helpful since one seems very closely related to the sort of unhelpful despair and avoidance many of us drift towards in the face of difficult situations and the other may well be a clue to where hope comes from.

The first type of awareness is often referred to as ‘cognitive’ or ‘narrative’ awareness and, as the names suggest, it is very much coloured by our own persistent thinking processes and the narratives we tell ourselves in response to what we see. It is a kind of awareness which is characterised by: a narrow understanding of situations and short term outcomes; a tendency to prioritise the negative in the mix of what I see; and a drift towards vague ‘global’ conclusions – ‘everything’s going wrong!’ And in the end it tends to be all about me: how things will affect me, what my future is looking like, how well/badly I have done, whether I am any good etc. etc. – basically it is about my sense of myself and about my survival.

Now this kind of awareness is not wrong. My survival instincts are crucial – for my survival. But sometimes we need to take note that this narrower form of awareness may not be helping me to know the hope which will inspire me to keep going and to continue functioning usefully in the midst of things.

And I have noticed a number of these characteristics in my own low mood in recent months. Notably: a focus on and identification with the outcomes of what I might be doing together with a narrow, short term assessment of these at best; a vague, general sense that all is not well in the world; and, yes, a tendency to focus on negative news rather than all of the news (much of which is very hopeful).

The other type of awareness is called ‘embodied’ or ‘experiential’ awareness. And, as these names suggest, it is less dominated by narrow thinking patterns and much more focused on actual moment by moment experience itself rather than the narratives we tell ourselves about the experience. This kind of awareness engages with a much wider view of all that is going on whilst still remaining engaged in the detail of experience. It is willing to open up to this wider view both geographically and through time – it senses the whole of human experience (not just mine) and locates my particular experience in a much broader perspective somewhere along the continuous line between my ancestors and my descendants. And, in contrast to our narrative awareness being about me, this awareness is more about something called ‘life’ – the pure joy, wonder and exuberance, as well as the difficulty and tragedy, of life itself, of which I am a part and not, dare I say, the central part.

So, crucially, with this kind of awareness I begin to realise four things:

  1. the world is indeed a wonderful place,
  2. I am a part of and not the centre of this wonderfulness,
  3. there are millions of others working for good as well as the millions who have gone before and will come after (it is not all down to me) and
  4. so perhaps I can feel the simple joy of living once again and be liberated and inspired with hope to do whatever it is for me to do.

Now, it is this kind of awareness which is cultivated constantly through our mindful meditation practice, but there are other ways of cultivating it too and I would like to explore these in subsequent blogs. These will focus on: engagement with nature; coming together as community; and taking part in action.

Finally a quote from the Czech activist and later president, Vaclav Havel:

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

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’.