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mindfulness and the mountains: a remarkable trek

“Going to the mountains is going home” -John Muir

“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire” -Robert Persig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

During most of April this year my wife-Kim-and I went on what might be called an “adventure holiday” for nearly 20 days. This was a guided trek of sorts through Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, ending up with a daylong stopover in Dubai, then home to Newcastle.

We’d long hauled a few times and we’d visited countries before that could be called “exotic” or “different” but this was, well, quite different.

From out the window of the plane the first Nepalese greeting was a craggy “namaste” in the form of the country’s hills and valleys spread out below us, a welcoming vista indeed. Landing, then exploring Kathmandu was an eye opener; this city expands and tucks itself with vigour into the surrounding hillsides and is a sensory riot of colour, sound, taste and smell. It’s as if your senses suddenly become dialled up to overload.

Travelling from Kathmandu to Pokhara for 8 hours, stopping and walking along the Nepalese valleys and small towns with fruit stacked up along the roadside and cows ambling through rubble-strewn thoroughfares, destitute by Western standards yet thick with life (colour! Nobody wears our signature black and browns!) and road dust billowing and blinding our eyes and filling our throats. The sight and sound of Hindu festivals, of incense and fire flooding the air.

tigers-nest-2691190_1920Then, by contrast, the order, simplicity and clean air of beautiful Bhutan; bustling towns such as Thimbu and Paro, the nation’s countryside studded with Buddhist dzongs rising like sturdy white fortresses alongside rushing rivers, stupas and flags around every corner and a punishing yet finally rewarding hike up, up, up the steep hillsides to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

One afternoon, hiking up a hillside to visit a stupa, we stopped midway, sitting for a while to turn the prayer wheels on the path, listening to the sound of the bells ringing out over the snowcapped and monumental panorama: as Li Po writes in his zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain “we sit together, the mountain and me/until only the mountain remains”.

Then to Tibet; flying over the Himalayas we began to grasp the sheer vastness of the land-endless white capped majestic mountains like jagged, rugged, luminous ghosts, hostile yet breathtakingly beautiful. Walking in Tibet is an effort; Lhasa where we stayed is the holy city of Tibetan Buddhism and the political, economic, cultural and religious centre of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It stands over 3,600 metres above sea level, and at that altitude mindful breathing is a lifesaver in helping you keep going and staving off the inevitable headaches.

We visited the Potala Palace where His Holiness The Dalai Lama lived and was partly brought up, struggling to absorb just how the Tibetan culture has been changed since 1959, yet, ringfenced as it is by snow-capped mountains, how much still stands.

These three countries: wherever you go, there you are, with mountains.

Finally, Dubai; flying over sand dunes into the airport, sampling the city’s modern cafes and restaurants, its steely malls and cool air conditioning; the mountains we “climbed” were skyscrapers, such the Burj Khalifa. At a roof height of over 830 metres it is known as the tallest structure in the world, yet what a contrast to the heights of the ancient mountain spirituality we had just experienced.

*****

Two weeks later, we are still processing the trip, and Kim and I are at the Star and Shadow, a small cinema in Newcastle, listening to Vin Harris give an introduction to the film Akong: A Remarkable Life. We began to deeply appreciate Akong’s life and deeds, and his escape from Tibet, through the Himalayan mountains and into India, how this flight impacted on his resolve to deliver compassion in action.tibetan-984267_1920

How might all of this impact on my practice of mindfulness? This is what I took to supervision. Gareth, in conversation, asked me to allow an image to begin to form and explore it.

There’s a mountain, white, hostile and unforgiving, unbroken and sound in its majesty, resolute in intent and meaning. Its top scrapes the sky and its base sinks deep into the Earth; it seems to say before you were thought of, before and before the ones who thought of the ones who thought of you, and long after you, I am.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that when we sit in meditation, we adopt a kind of mountain posture, our heads the tip and our crossed legs a sturdy base. Perhaps also there is something here in the teaching of mindfulness that-as with the works of Akong-remind us to wake up to the body of the Earth, wake up our earthly senses and our presence in the world, our essential being and connection and, like the mountain embody this being, this I am in our lives.

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mindfulness: when nothing happens and it’s no big deal

You don’t have to act crazy anymore— We all know you were good at that, /Now retire, my dear, from all that hard work you do/Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart. /Look in a clear mountain mirror/See the beautiful ancient warrior and the divine elements/You always carry inside -Hafiz

I’ve been practicing mindfulness now for around 20 years, first a kind of informal practice where I would sit on a cushion at the French windows looking out into the back garden. Day in, day out, winter, spring, summer, autumn; dark mornings and bright mornings, then repeat. After a few years I formalised my practice by taking the Post Graduate Diploma in Studies in Mindfulness through the University of Aberdeen[1].

So, 20 years later and I’m still sitting on my cushion (okay: I admit, I upgraded the cushion, it’s a splendid Tibetan black number I bought at Samye Ling) and I’m following the same old practice. At the window: winter, spring, summer, autumn, winter. Rinse, repeat!

At first the results were amazing! I started to experience a crashing waterfall of thinking thinking thinking that I’d never experienced before (in retrospect, I was of course merely becoming aware of the drama which had always been present) -a cavalcade of spectacle, figures leaping up like infernal salmon from my unconscious and I relished each and every opportunity to take part in this internal cinema. Then things calmed, stress fell away and I felt more spacious in my head, more connected to my bodily sensations. At times I felt light, intimate with myself in a way I’d never known.

And then progress stopped.

For about two years now, nothing’s happened. I’ve sat there, on the cushion for nearly two years now getting myself more familiar with…nothing, really. Have I been wasting my time? Think of the books I could have been reading, the films I could have watched, the calls I could have made (though, calling my friends up at 7am might not curry much in the way of favour with them).

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My practice is more akin to waiting for a bus than anything magical.

What’s (not) going on?

A few weeks ago, I took part in a weekend retreat delivered by the Mindfulness Association called The Compassionate Warrior. In a guided visualisation practice we were taken through I was greeted by a slim figure who all but dismissed me as I threw down my black rucksack into a corner full of dozens of other black rucksacks. The figure spoke: “oh, you’ll be back again; its no big deal” and continued working, ignoring me.

There’s something here which goes to the very nub, the very centre of things for me. The baggage that we carry-the shadow side of us-we keep collecting it, we work to let it go and yet it keeps returning; but we can also move from a place where it’s a huge drama to one where it’s no big deal. The path, then, is the practice itself. Perhaps this is what Jon Kabat-Zinn meant when he talked about mindfulness practice as “bucketing out the pond”[2]

On the other hand…

Yesterday was a practice day, and I had the privilege of spending the day sitting, reflecting and walking on the beach. Last night I had-I can’t recall any details-frightening visions that (apparently!) had me twitching in the bed. I have no clear recollection of these guests in the guest house[3] yet my reflections are that it could-just could be-that when nothing’s happening, something really important is happening, we just have to be patient and trust that something will emerge, like a lotus flowering out the mud.

How do I know that I’m not just spiritually bypassing here? That’s a really important question. What is “spiritually bypassing”? John Welwood, talking to Tina Fossella[4] describes it as “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”  In other words, we turn away or numb out from our wounds and bliss out a bit, then a bit more.

It’s here where we-I-probably need to be aware that as well as mindfulness practices, psychological practices, or developmental practices need taking on board, too. If, in my mindfulness practice I am trying to find ways to wake up, then it might be best accompanied by ways to grow up[5]. This accords with Maria Calpan’s thinking, where we have to cultivate discernment[6] on the path.

Okay, when we open this up, there’s quite a lot here for “nothing happening” to be full of “happening”.

Urghh! It’s a bit messy and contradictory!

My take on this is that when there is nothing happening, it’s no big deal, but if we stay close to our experience, no big deal might turn out to be a very big deal indeed!

As always in mindfulness, the path is the practice we return to.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.abdn.ac.uk/study/postgraduate-taught/degree-programmes/946/studies-in-mindfulness/

[2] Jon Kabat-Zinn Wherever You Go, Here You Are

[3] http://www.sagemindfulness.com/blog/rumi-s-poem-the-guest-house

[4] Google On Spiritual Bypassing, Relationship, and the Dharma

[5] http://integral-life-home.s3.amazonaws.com/Wilber-WakeUpGrowUp-TheEdgeOfTheUnknown.pdf

[6] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eyes-Wide-Open-Cultivating-Discernment/dp/1591797322/ref=pd_lutyp_cxhsh_1_7?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1591797322&pd_rd_r=c43454a2-bd34-46d9-9e8d-c524d20516a3&pd_rd_w=EYqw2&pd_rd_wg=Ht3q7&psc=1&refRID=RB95SSRNZSM23D7FZ5A4

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What happened to you? Are you more than this?

“People are having wounds open for the sake of having wounds to point to” Heather Heying[1]

What happened to you?

You probably-most definitely I would say-experienced some pain in your life, perhaps recently, possibly long ago in the past, so long ago that the detail of the pain lies shrouded, obscured by the living you have done since then, sublimated or buried in somatic memory.

But our pain-essentially that which first happens to us as we are born-does not just stay as pain. It becomes suffering. It might have been the Buddha who first saw this with any degree of insight in the Sutra of the Second Arrow, when he described our pain as a first arrow that, well, causes us pain, physical or psychological. Into that wound of the first arrow another arrow falls (and then more) until we build up a story, a narrative of suffering.

The suffering did not happen to you. Pain happened to you. So how is that you carry this narrative of suffering, how is that you came to believe, grasp onto and identify with this suffering, as if to say this is me, I am what has happened to me, however much this is lost in time and shrouded in the past. I suffer and will hold onto my suffering, in spite of any evidence to the contrary, this is me.

Perhaps we worry that if we lose our suffering, we will have nothing to call our own, to call us? Perhaps can see this played out in current culture, where identity politics creates multiple sects and tribes of victims, many of them attempting to be the tribe that shouts the loudest and therefore claims themselves as the biggest victims.

The issue here is that the shadow of the victim is a persecutor, and in order to keep the victim energy going, contemporary tribes have perpetuated the story of their suffering; interestingly-ironically-they seem quite happy to do this. Douglas Murray has called this a kind of culture of masochists, who have in truth never really engaged with true sadism. Perhaps there is a suggestion that there is a kind of faux suffering at work here, what Carl Jung called illegitimate or bourgeois suffering? Or perhaps this is too harsh?

What happened to you?

Did you hold onto the story of your suffering, whether born from real pain or foisted onto to you by the world until you became married, not to your spouse or lover but with reciprocal stories of suffering that find some solace but not true meaning in this arrangement; only further suffering, suffering spun into fine gold garments, yet suffering all the same?

You are not your suffering. You can mindfully reverse engineer your suffering, notably through psychotherapy to unpack your story, and mindfulness to drop the story.

You are more, much more that your suffering.

You are no more your suffering than the clouds are the sky.

What happened to you, is not you; it’s what happened to you.

You are a case of mistaken identity; you think you are your suffering-and it’s in that thinking where you make the biggest mistake; you are not your suffering or the clinging thoughts that say this is me.

You can be the awareness of what happened to you and begin to dis-identify from your suffering, slowly, gently.

Mindfulness has a potent practice to facilitate this, called RAIN practice[2], where we can

  • recognise what’s happened to us
  • accept and allow it
  • inquire into the heart of this
  • non-identify with it

We can break free of the false chains of our suffering and become what are truly meant to be: fully human.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xUisjHoB_8

[2] https://mrsmindfulness.com/r-n-four-step-process-using-mindfulness-difficult-times/

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BBC 2’s Winterwatch and mindfulness: take notice!

“Who affirms that crystals are alive?/I affirm it, let who will deny:/Crystals are engendered, /wax and thrive,/Wane and wither; I have seen them die.

-From Snow by John Davidson

 

Like many folks in the U.K. I enjoy following the seasonal wildlife programmes on BBC 2 presented by Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan. Packham, of course, became famous in the 2009 Springwatch series when he slid a few references from the songs of David Bowie and The Smiths into the programme, but it is his decade old devotion to the wildlife of the Nation’s woods, fens and fells-and back gardens-that strike me as most remarkable. Packham and the programme really make me take notice of the wildlife right outside my doors.

Of course, Chris Packham is also known for his courage and openness around his mental health, being, as he is, a person who was bullied at school, has experienced severe depression with thoughts of suicide and has Asperger’s Syndrome[1].

Winterwatch late January 2019[2] contained an interview between Chris Packham and Joe Harkness, whose book Bird Therapy will be published in June 2019[3]. Around the subject of mental health and wellbeing, Packham called the book a “natural cure” whose activity-bird watching-heavily promotes mental and emotional wellbeing.

Joe and Chris stood and talked at the edge of a lake, counting ducks as they glided by. I was struck by these two courageous men, wholly open and yet balanced in their self-acceptance, discussing their shared experience of thinking about taking their own lives. Both had been dark places and in dark times, and when Joe remarked “I will extol the virtues of those undervalued and underrated birds” I couldn’t help wondering if he was subtly telling us to take notice of behaviour, thoughts and feelings we also might undervalue or underrate.

Joe talked about how he valued the notion of “start at the bottom” and perhaps it’s true, we need to take notice of the ground or foundation of all things to ensure we are well rooted into life; we’re so inclined to be top heavy with thinking, at times it’s a wonder we don’t fall over!

During his dark days Joe had received therapy from Mind[4] with input from some medication and mindfulness. He pointed out Mind’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing Programme: connect, be active, take notice, learn and give and then talked about the birds, and flocks of birds having “freedom and fluidity” in their flight.

Reflecting on this, I was struck by how much of this intersects with my own experience, work and practice in mindfulness with the Mindfulness Association[5] and mindfulness in general.

Take notice. There is so much around us that we often don’t take notice of: at this time in late January the soft flakes of snow silently fall on my back lawn, a tiny robin, red breasted in anger pecks and dances; two collar doves court in the frost, tiny droplets of ice cling to the tangled and leafless branches of clematis as the day further breaks open. In my own back garden, in your park or through our windows we can take notice of another life, a life of nature. Being with nature is much like being with the natural rhythm and movements of the Earth; being with nature is being with a body vast and yet inexplicably personal in nature, for in taking notice of the outer we can also turn inwards, noticing the inner nature of our bodies, our breath and the feeling of our being.

In this spaciousness our thoughts, feelings and concepts can have the same freedom and fluidity of birds in flight, and live in this spaciousness itself, which is so often underrated and undervalued by our craving to do and be distracted.

Joe and Chris could be right: rest at the edge of your own lakeside and take notice, perhaps count, and mindfully observe what passes in the current, being present and being presence itself. As the popular Buddhist teacher and nun, Pema Chödrön says: “If your mind is expansive and unfettered, you will find yourself in a more accommodating world, a place that’s endlessly interesting and alive. That quality isn’t inherent in the place but in your state of mind.”[6]

Take notice: you owe it to your own wellbeing.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Packham

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0c1wf97/winterwatch-series-7-episode-2

[3] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bird-Therapy-Joe-Harkness/dp/1783527722/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549098534&sr=8-1&keywords=bird+therapy+joe+harkness

[4] https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

[5] http://www.mindfulnessassociation.net/

[6]Pema Chödrön Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

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I’m having a panic attack! how can mindfulness help?

For over 10 years I worked at two G.P. Surgeries in the North East of England. Common themes and issues that patients brought to my clinic included low mood, relationship problems, anxiety and bereavement. Around 2010 things changed, perhaps it was part of a social phenomenon, but incidences of panic attacks spiked. By 2012 it was unusual if 40% of my caseload (up from 10% in 2007) was not panic-related therapy.

But what is a panic attack? There are a number of ways of defining or describing panic attacks, but most agree that a panic attack is a sudden and very intensely gripping experience of fear, it includes shortage of breath, palpitations, shaking, sweating and numbness. The attack might last 15 to 30 minutes itself, though the after affects might last considerably longer, and though they are not typically fatal, having a panic attack can feel like you are about to die.

Here’s a fuller list from the DSM 5[1]

  • Palpitations, and/or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or being smothered
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going insane
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Chills or hot flashes

Wikipedia says they affect 3% of the U.K. population (that does not gel with my clinical experience, I’d say it’s larger, but then I would do, I see these folks rather often) and impacts more on women than men.

There are a number of “causes” of panic attacks, for example the trauma of loss or a marriage breakdown, a road traffic accident, phobias, negative self talk or a habituated response to a threat (e.g. having a panic attack sets up the habit-response of having a panic attack) -these are just some of the ways that a panic attack might be triggered.

Essentially a panic attack is our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) being triggered. This is often more colloquially known as our fight or flight system (there is also a more primitive aspect, freeze). It’s no surprise that our nervous system is, well, a “nervous” system; we can get triggered by threats, real or imagined (to the brain it makes little difference) and our hypothalamus recalls this and gleefully allows us to trigger and trigger again. Whoopee.

Okay, but what is a panic attack, beyond the pain and symptoms?

There is an increasing school of thought[2] (and I belong to this school) that a panic attack is your body’s way of waking you up (okay, it could try a beep alarm not this nightmare wakeup, but you would probably not take as much notice) to its presence, that it’s really time to become more embodied[3]. You see, a lot of us try to fight panic attacks by thinking or battling our way through, but practices in mindfulness have shown that if we pay attention and stay with the experience of panic (okay, much easier said that done) we can treat panic attacks, and treat then quite quickly, too.

When we are treating panic attacks, we are fundamentally bringing back on line the PNS or parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the relaxation response or soothing system; the panic throws you into fight and flight, the “para” calms you down, most effectively by bringing you back into your body, safely and grounded.

How to get back to the body?

There are a number of methods used. They can be collated, I believe under the heading of mindfulness of the body:

  • Breathing: practice deep breathing into the belly. Breathe in to the count of 4/5 and out again. This should be done proactively, for around 3-5 minutes of the day, it’s a great way to start and energise your day
  • STOP practice: stop (pause), take a breath, observe what’s happening (perhaps naming, touching the world around you), proceeding
  • Learning about what a panic attack is. Go back to the top of the page
  • Medication: see your G.P. for advice
  • Therapy: a cognitive behavioural type of therapy to you help challenge beliefs, lifestyle and any cognitive distortions that are skewing your life
  • Mindfulness: to help you bring self compassion to you and ground back into your body
  • Walking in nature, the beach, gently getting back into the body

Panic attacks are seriously debilitating, but they can be worked with and though: there is an effective treatment path, don’t suffer needlessly, get help!

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm

[2] E.g. https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/10/how-i-completely-healed-my-panic-attacks/

[3] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Calming-Rush-Panic-Mindfulness-Based-Reduction/dp/1608825264/ref=sr_1_34?ie=UTF8&qid=1546964939&sr=8-34&keywords=mindfulness+panic+attacks

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5 great tips for Christmas Presence

Christmas is still a few days away, but after 3 hours shopping for all my family and friends I’m frazzled. Where is my mindfulness practice-actually, where is my mind?

I know that the trainings say that mindfulness is all about losing it and getting it, but sometimes I just feel I’ve really lost it!

Keeping our practice alive at Christmas can be a real challenge. Gratitude, pausing and savouring are great ways to keep us on track. Here are 5 Great Tips for a Mindful Christmas

1.   The Sound of Music

Take the opportunity with Christmas Carols and festive muzak around, to take time out to listen and give all your attention to one or two favourite songs or pieces of music that speak to your heart. See if you can fully focus on the sounds and the physical feelings. You might discover layers of sound -or layers of you-you didn’t realise were there. Be present to the resonances in the music.

2. Find your refuge of calm

Connect for 10 minutes into a refuge of calm. Stop. This could be in your car parked out in the carpark, a cosy window-seat, lying on the floor for a 10 minute bodyscan (yey, try it in Sainsbury’s!) or even a mindful walk. Respect your need for topping up moments of sanctuary.

3. Seasonal Scents

Enjoy the seasonal smells as you are cooking in the kitchen, shopping or walking in nature. We often take our sense of smell for granted – be mindful of all those astonishing fragrances at this time of year – from rich, spicy mince-pies to pine cones, spiced oranges, cinnamon and cloves. Savour the scents!

4. Gratitude practice

There is so much to be appreciative of at this time of year. Having hearth and home, being healthy, meeting up with friends and family, plentiful food and beautiful surroundings; the list is endless. Say it to others, say it to yourself or write it down: Thank you!

5. Mindful breathing

Imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into and out of that spot, filling your abdomen with air. Let the air in, then let it out, like a balloon inflating and deflating. With every long, slow exhalation, deepen into the feeling and let go. Try this any time you’re feeling off-track or overwhelmed, bit by bit letting go of Christmas tensions.

Happy Christmas!

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Try this STOP practice to help with Christmas panic!

Last weekend I walked into a store in Tynemouth. A gentleman waited outside while his family went browsing inside. I looked inside and found nothing suitable for a gift. Walking out I passed the man, who said “I’m fed up with this already”; I thought it’s December the 2nd, there’s a long way to go yet. Isolated incident?

This week, though, I’ve had a record number of clients who are into the first week of December, and like my gentlemen friend, already fed up, sick to the back teeth of Christmas, sick of being sold things, fed up of averts with mince pies and faux Christmas tables, bracing themselves for the next 20 odd days.

What’s happening here? Have we reached “peak Christmas” or are we experiencing post consumerboom, for want of a better word?

Without wanting to go all “bah humbug!” I can appreciate why folks might find Christmas not “the most wonderful time of the year” but the most stressful, and I am reminded that the first two weeks of January will, if they are anything like the same as the last 15 years, be filled with new clients at odds with their partners and their partners families over the “festive” time.

But dispel the misery! How might we survive Christmas?

There is a practice called STOP practice, which I’ve been suggesting for years to clients experiencing panic attacks, so the practice itself might be useful in lowering Christmas “panic”.

Let’s find out….

Imagine you are in the middle of a busy shopping mall and have been for two hours. The lights are bright, the music at times is blaring, it’s now lunchtime and the office traffic looking for gifts and food has swelled the artificial streets; it feels as if the air, the good fresh air has been sucked out and you are stressed and quite irritable, more so knowing that you have another 2 hours to go at this hurried and harried present buying lark.

STOP!

Literally, stop.

  1. Stop and take a pause. Sit down of you can, if you can’t, find a store front or a nook and cranny where you can take a step back. Just stand there.
  2. Take a breath. Breathe, slowly in, slowly out. Feel the air collect in your lungs, ballooning your lungs outwards, then letting go of your breath down to your belly (with practice you can do this without anybody noticing; anyway, folks are probably far too interested in their stuff to really notice you). Feel your feet on the floor, feel your self grounded, rooted to the earth.
  3. Observe. Watch, witness both what’s happening around you, and then inside you. What are you feeling? Notice how this changes, even just slightly over a short time. Breathe some more, on the outbreath let go and let be.
  4. Proceed. When you feel calmer and more relaxed, more grounded, go about your shopping again, refreshed.

And repeat if needed.

Happy Christmas all!

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the simple feeling of being

“we are not only living at arm’s length from each other, we are living at arm’s length from ourselves”

-Christina Crook The Joy of Missing Out

It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting with a book in my lap looking out at the garden. It’s raining; it’s the first of December 2018 and it’s been raining now for nearly two weeks solid. Rain is natures’ white noise, here and now and yet Jurassic in feeling. Actually, looking out at the rain it’s…percussive, soft and soothing, the lawn is wet right through; russet coloured autumn leaves are turned and gathered, clustered around the trees at the far edge of the garden. Everything seems more, well, intense and statured with colour and though it’s a dismal day the textures and colours seem to radiate with life, even though at this time of year life is tending to slow down.

Perhaps that’s it; everything slows down at this time of year (except us!)

The spiritual teacher Aydashanti in his book Emptiness Dancing invites us, at this time of year, to explore “what you are without your leaves,” for we have the habit to pick up our past, our anxieties about the future and our often-errant stories about ourselves as if they were fallen leaves that we refuse to let go of and hurriedly try to stick back onto our lives.

What if we just let things fall away? What would we find? What can we do without?

Aydashanti suggests that we might find ourselves “naturally cracked open… [into] the compassionate heart”.

For me, a lot of this is about time. I’m very timebound and usually see this a good thing-probably because my days as a therapist are carved up into 50-minute hours, the 10-minute spaces in between are then toilet break-check email-phone-make new appointments so my days are structed and regimented.

But this Sunday the time is different. It’s akin to my experience of spending time (whoa! When did time turn to currency?) at Samye Ling. Kagyu Samye Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Eskdalemuir in Scotland[1]. You drive past Langholm and into the rolling hills, and there it is, a huge white stupa and a red and gold temple. For me this is a mark of difference, a demarcation that signals I’m stepping onto another domain, it’s as much about the inside as the outside; I’m now turning inwards, moving into the right hemisphere of my brain, out of the data driven left.

Time is different at Samye Ling, slower, paced, it’s breathable and open, time is heartfelt at Samye Ling, and you miss out on everything, and nothing at all.

I’m watching a robin on the lawn, picking and pecking, undisturbed by the sprinkling rainfall.

There’s really nothing else here at this time and there’s no need to be.

In her book The Joy of Missing Out Christina Crook reverses the insatiable need that FOMO (the fear of missing out) produces in us with its hyper anxious drive for the next this-and-that and suggests we put down our phones and devices, disconnect from all that and connect with us instead. Albert Borgmann writes “technology is a systemic effort to get everything under control” [2] but often we are better suited to letting go of control, and practice falling back into our root nature than swinging like a distracted monkey (ala monkey mind[3]) from one stimulated event to another.

I hear a sound; looking out the French doors, high in the sky, cutting through the murmuration of rainfall like a hundred grey darts, wild geese in formation are flying southward. It’s beautiful.

It’s time like this, here, now when it feels that whereas somebody or something in the hurly burly digital world tinkered with my brain, in moments like this I reset; immersed and embodied in a sense of natural awareness.

This winter could be a chance, an experiment, to stop and experience what it’s like to stay with what is, to simply be in our wintertime without leaves, alive in our own radiant core and open.

[1] http://www.samyeling.org/

[2] In Christina Crook The Joy of Missing Out also see https://monkeytraps.wordpress.com/page/8/?pages-list

[3] https://www.pocketmindfulness.com/understanding-monkey-mind-live-harmony-mental-companion/

archer

Shoot that poisoned arrow!

A man gets shot by a poisoned arrow. A doctor rushes to his side to pull out the arrow, but the man resists the life saving treatment. He wants to know the name of the fletcher who made the arrow, the type of wood the arrow is made of, the personality of the man who fixed head to shaft and shot him, the horse the man rode, and a thousand other details that have little bearing on the here and now of living.

The man’s commitment to thinking, thinking, thinking gets in the way of his essential predicament: often our life’s issues are not resolved by more thinking, but often by being in the here and now, getting help and taking action.

 

Another parable: every body gets shot by an arrow, an arrow of pain. Pain happens. But then we shoot ourselves, with another arrow, right in the soft spot, the already wounded spot. This is the arrow-the story-of our suffering.

We have no choice regarding the first arrow: pain happens. The second arrow of suffering, we have a choice about, whether to live in a story of suffering, which is gasoline on the fire of pain, or stay with the pain, a pain which is impermanent.

Our choice!

horizon

some of these days: beach mindfulness, or I disappeared!

“I am in the music. Globes of fire revolve in the mirrors; rings of smoke encircle them and spin around, veiling and unveiling the hard smile of the light”-Jean-Paul Sarte Nausea

I’m lucky. I live about five minutes from the beach. The Northumbria coastline can be bleak and cutting at times, but this year its been a constant source of surprise and heat. Every day I’ve been to the beach there’s been a new beach there to greet me.

Today the sea was grey, the sky felt low and seemed draped with moisture as if preparing to rain. It’s November, and at this time the wind can be cold and strong, lifting the sand in its swirl. As I walk, I can feel the sand fall to either side of my feet, I can smell the salty air and I can hear the perpetual low roar of the waves in their watery crashing on the sand. Seagulls screech and take flight. I stand still, breathe.

Moments like this, when there is nothing to sell or buy, nothing to give or take, nothing to do but stand still and savour the experience, moments of letting thoughts fall away.

For one moment, perhaps one nanosecond, I disappeared. Thoughts fell away and there was no me, no person here at all, just this, an open empty beach and the dull roar of the waves, the sea extending out to the horizon, towards the grey curvature of the Earth. And then I’m back, so fast, as fast as the snapshut of a camera’s aperture; I’m back, this person is back, mediating the purity of the experience with concept, idea and thought.

waves 1

This reminds me of the Buddhist Dzog Chen notion of “one ground, two paths[1]” where it is suggested there exists a foundation of grand potential within us known as the ground being. On one level, (one path) we are already awakened and already aware of our true nature. We glimpse Truth (and what might that be?) At the same time, however, (the other path) that true nature has been obscured or forgotten. We catch glimpses of it, but for the lay practitioner (such as I) the glimpse is very quick to end. Essentially our conceptual self -thinking, thinking, thinking-gets in the way.

This ground is completely Awake, replete with play and luminosity. We are separate from this until we-essentially-construct the idea that we are and attempt to control our experiencing and our world. We live reduced and veiled from what is.

Perhaps this is akin to finding what Eckhart Tolle calls presence[2], a grounding unmediated by thought or emotion, where thought and emotions are simply regarded as waves that fall back into the sea and we are a vast sky of awareness.

How many hundreds of years have I been doing this?

I walk on the path, I stray off the path. And so it goes on, a crooked beach path less travelled.

I’ll keep practising.

beach shoes waves

 

 

[1] https://beherenownetwork.com/mindrolling-177-one-ground-two-paths/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-MuVB5f8pA

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