Living the mindful life

 

At the Garn

Me being mindful – or are those sausages burning? 

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

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

Living with intention.

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

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

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

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

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

Structure.

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

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

SEE, LOVE, BE publication day – a spirituality for the non-religious?

See-Love-Be-front-cover

Today is publication day for my new book, SEE, LOVE, BE – mindfulness and the spiritual life. In some ways it is a follow up to my previous book which offered reflections especially to Christians who might want to see what mindfulness has to offer Christian spirituality in particular.

However this is quite a different book in two key ways. First it is a more practical book arranged as an eight week programme which the reader can follow on their own or with a group. It has introductory reflections, formal meditations (with CD included), practical tips and then simple exercises which can be tried out through the day. Each chapter then ends with one of Julia Cousins’ beautiful poems.

But secondly it makes an attempt to explore the idea of spirituality beyond just its Christian context. So I have tried to explore themes which are faithful to mindfulness practice but go beyond its purely therapeutic value to the cultivating of an attitude to the whole of life, which some might call spiritual and others simply ‘holistic’. I have tried to use language and ideas which might be common to us all rather than lead with theological concepts or constructs. And only then to point out possible links with spiritual traditions like Christianity and Buddhism. But these will always remain optional for those who are interested. I am genuinely not really interested in making people religious. I am much more interested in exploring what it is to become more fully and wonderfully human.

And this all links – or may link – with much research done in recent years into the rise in number and activity of people who identify with the phrase ‘Spiritual but not religious’. (Ref. Linda Woodhead’s research at Lancaster University and Linda Mrecadante’s ‘Belief without borders’). The statistics seem to be telling us that although there appears to be a mass exodus away from formal religious institutions going on, many of these very people still relate to the word ‘spirituality’ and will join groups (and pay for them) which have some link with spirituality. Mindfulness is an example of this but also Yoga, Tai Chi, nature based groups etc. etc.. The main motivation for joining such groups is often simply to access something which the participant feels resources their lives: stress management, physical/mental health etc. But many will use more spiritual language to refer to what they are doing.

I am also drawn to this aspect of spirituality and have engaged with many people over recent years who are explorers in this area. And ‘explorers’ is probably the right term because there is much that is new and not fully formed here even though there are also many links with the ancient traditions. There are rightly questions about: what works and what doesn’t; what do we mean by ‘works’?; is everything becoming a bit fragmented and individualistic?; how do we find some kind of helpful ethical framework? (or is this deliberately being discarded?). And so I declare myself also to be an explorer in this field. I have a background and history within the Christian faith and I have grown in confidence in the value and effectiveness of mindfulness practice. But from here it feels as though the territory is wide open and there is plenty to be explored about this business of being human. I am hoping my book will make some small contribution.