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RAIN: coming to your emotional rescue

“there’s no weather channel for our emotions. We don’t know whether to expect sunshine or clouds each day. Why can’t we just be happy?”[1]

 

There’s an old pre-Buddha story from India. A man is sitting by the side of the road and hears the sound of thunder a mile away. He looks down the road and sees a cloud of dust. As it gets closer, the cloud of dust is revealed as a wild forest elephant bellowing towards him. As the elephant gets closer the man realises that clinging to the beast is a small man, held on by a rope. The road vibrates, the elephant gets closer, and as it passes the man asks “where are you going?” the rider on the elephant looks down and says “ask the elephant!”

When the Buddha heard this story, he added a little to it. He suggested that the elephant, since it has been around for a lot longer that the rider, has learnt a thing or two. He proposed that the elephant had learnt to hire the services of a lawyer, principally to defend but also to justify the elephant’s actions.

This is pretty much our predicament as human beings; the rider is our reasoning side, but the emotional side of us is older, stronger and often more powerful. Yet when we become emotional, we often seek to defend our emotional side and justify our actions-no matter how out of kilter they might be. Here is where we can be our own worst enemy, getting caught up and engulfed in “wild forest” emotions such as anger, hate, jealousy, pride, doubt and fear; these emotions end up ruling us, the tail wagging the dog.

Our emotions are also the way we often find meaning in our lives:[2] I feel this, so it means….being key. We end up fusing to this meaning, essentially identifying these wild forest emotions as us; this meaning is me, my identity.

Then we believe we do not have a choice about this: I feel it therefore is must be so. We are emotionally fused to not just a belief but a set of often wayward beliefs that run our lives.

The American writer Byron Katie[3] has developed four questions that can help liberate us from this fusion. She invites us to ask about any thought, emotion, statement or set of beliefs we have:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

When we ask the first question the immediate reply is often: yeah, its true. But the second question takes us further, because we usually find it almost impossible to “absolutely” know that anything is true. It shines a little daylight into things, and it’s a really powerful intervention into difficult thoughts and emotions (emotions are often defined as agitated mental states, which include thoughts).

However, if we really want to work on our emotions such as anger, fear or jealousy we might need to dig a little deeper to help defuse the habit we have of recycling old emotional states that justify what are often out of date, disabling beliefs.

One such method is RAIN, the mindfulness practice popularised by Tara Brach[4]. RAIN stands for recognise, allow, investigate and nonidentification. When we have strong emotions and we are invited to explore them we tend to either block the emotions, drown in the emotions (justifying them) or distract ourselves. However, we can approach these emotional states, and essentially RAIN practice works to do just this.

Let’s explore this:

  1. Recognise: we can consider this as “re-cognise” or thinking about our thinking. This is often talked about as taking a meta approach, but here it is looking at the emotional state without blocking, drowning or distracting ourselves from it.
  2. Allow: we can allow ourselves to feel the emotion as it is, accept it for what its is, warts and all, no matter how unpleasant it is. Standing firm in the midst of difficult emotions, unyielding yet compassionate towards them is essential here.
  3. Investigate: we then approach the emotion itself with a kindly curiosity, as if we are befriending the emotional state. There are 4 components to this stage:
    1. Mindfulness of thoughts: thoughts are often the kerosene on the fire of difficult emotions, and if we can approach these thoughts with intimate attention, they will have a tendency to defuse.
    2. Mindfulness of emotions: we might label the emotion, and pause in its presence, allowing it to simply be. We might notice that there are layers here, for example underneath anger sadness might appear. Notice what happens when we bring acceptance to this, how this changes the emotional state.
    3. Mindfulness of bodily sensations: we feel into the emotional state, allowing it to work its way through our bodies, perhaps asking ourselves: what is happening in my body right now? Where is (e.g.) anger in the body? How it is now?
    4. Mindfulness of concepts: we can explore, again with intimate yet kindly attention, what sets of beliefs this leaves us with; what meaning this emotion brings to us. Are these concepts real and fixed or do they alter over time?
  4. Nonidentification: there is nothing to do in this last stage but rest on the outbreath and let the experience wash through us; it’s the part of the practice which is truly mindful as we relax in natural awareness, as if we have broken through a trance of wild forest emotions.

RAIN practice is not a “one shot deal” it is a practice that yields more and more every time it is experienced. RAIN is not about getting rid of our emotions, suppressing them or acting them out. Far from it. Our emotional states can be creative and can generate great insights; RAIN practice encourages us to work skilfully with our emotional states before we become engulfed and identified into what we think they might mean; it helps stop the wild elephant from running down that unhelpful road and taking charge of our lives.

[1] Dzogchen Ponlop Emotional Rescue

[2] Lisa Feldman Barrett How Emotions Are Made

[3] https://thework.com/2017/10/four-liberating-questions/

[4] Tara Brach Radical Acceptance

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Getting out of harmful habits with mindful life reflection

“at each moment we are at a fork in the road”-Dzogchen Ponlop

 

Many times in our life we can find ourselves caught up in what seems to be repeating behaviour, emotions or thoughts. There is often a sense that we have been here before with this thought or belief, and that this behaviour and the emotions and the beliefs that accompany them (or is it the other way around?) are not only unhelpful but often quite disabling. We realise that something in our minds has led this to happen, but we’re not really aware of this “happening” in any meaningful way. We are stuck in recurrent habits. Essentially, it’s as if we are prisoners of our own minds, which is a very strange way to be a human being.

How can we break free of our own disabling life patterns?

First, we have to get to know them more fully. Here’s how.

In 2007 Dzogchen Ponlop, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars, published his book Mind After Death. In the book he recommends the benefits of what he calls mindful life reflection.

At the end of each day we recall the events of the day, taking time to reflect on what we have done, what kind of thoughts and emotions we might have experienced that day. We then might include the events of yesterday and the day before, perhaps reviewing the whole week. This practice can build over time, and although we might begin with relatively short timeframes, we can increase to review our whole lives.

Here is my slightly adapted selection of mindful life reflective inquiry questions:

First sit for a while, perhaps five minutes. Bring your attention to your breath, allowing the inbreath to fill your lungs and the outbreath to reach down into your belly. Feel your way into your body, get a sense of your body in the (e.g.) chair, your feet on the floor, your back in the chair. You are attuning to the simple feeling of being. Notice how with each breath your shoulders rise and fall, your chest and belly expand and contacts. It’s as if your body is one. Breathe naturally. Let go of any striving and allow the following questions to drop into your mind like a pebble in a pond, noticing what thoughts and connections ripple out or bubble up:

  1. What were the major events that occurred today?
  2. What thoughts were tied in with these events?
  3. What emotions were tied in with these thoughts?
  4. Do you get a sense of how these thoughts and emotions were experienced in your body? Where?
  5. Are these thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations familiar?
  6. If they are familiar, can you track them back over time?

Six inquiry questions, which are linking events-thoughts-emotions-bodily sensations together to enable us to notice life patterns.

Life patterns are essentially signs that we might be repeating a cycle of difficulty that keeps us locked in disabled or afflicted thinking and feeling. The repeated pattern neon lights this. We might ask ourselves “does it have to be this way?” and lean into our experience further. Leaning into our experience, becoming familiar with our disabling thoughts and emotions is the first step to freeing ourselves from harmful and restrictive life patterns: we can’t change what we are not aware of.

Awareness is the key that creates the conditions to choose how we might respond to our restrictive life patterns differently and free ourselves from these restraints.

Try it!

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Angry? How mindfulness can help you get out of your Groundhog Day

“anger is an energy” -John Lydon

“anger arises out of the egos fundamental fear-its insecurity about its existence”-Ponlop[1]

“don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me if I got angry.” -Bruce Banner

 

Jamie was angry. He could feel it well up almost instantly inside him without warning. He had, four months ago, made the decision with the full support of his wife to switch jobs after a one year controlling relationship with a new manager. It was, he reflected, the right thing, the best thing to do. But he was angry. This, he thought made no sense at all: he had done the leaving and now had a better job and a better life. What, exactly was going on?

At times we can all find ourselves caught up, then engulfed, in anger. It’s as if our whole being is trembling with fire and we can’t find a way out. It’s Groundhog Day and we angrily go around and around living the same old. And we burn and we burn. In turn this creates a situation where we are well and truly caught up in reactivity; we “hulk out” so to speak and that fire burns those around us.

How can we move past this? How can we end our anger?

Before we explore anger, it might be worthwhile to pull back a little to consider the nature of thought-or mind-itself. This is the principle domain of exploration and learning in mindfulness; the nature of mind and hence thought or thinking. Psychotherapeutic approaches such as counselling with tend to privilege content of mind, and the problem with this is that content is endless, yet nature of mind is not.

In mindfulness we often suggest that there are three stages to thinking: self-arising, self-displaying, and self-liberating[2]. Let’s look at these.

  1. Self-arising: much of our thought arises unbidden and quite involuntary. Essentially, it’s habitual, since the majority of our thinking is composed of stories, memories, reflections that we recycle, as if we have a stream or undercurrent of thinking that every now and then we automatically dip into and become immersed in.
  2. Self-display: when we get “hooked” on our stories we are at the stage of self-display. Fundamentally our thoughts become-in a nanosecond-thinking and in self-display we become hooked onto our habitual stories, which we either like, dislike or are neutral to. In the case of stories we dislike (e.g. the “anger story”) we actually tend to hook onto these with greater power and strength, more attachment, since bad is stronger than good[3] in the brain’s domain. In self-display our whole narrative, story, or the movie (or at least a scene or two) of our lives is revealed, privileged and hooked into. This is where the cognitive and emotional action, the drama, plays out.
  3. Self-liberation: so, here’s the thing. Left alone, our thoughts will discharge and liberate. But we don’t do that, we cling and grasp onto our thoughts and thinking, endlessly recycling them. This works the same way for our emotions, too, and since our emotions highlight what is meaningful to us, we form an identity with this meaningful self in self-display. For better or for worse. Sometimes for worse.

How does this relate to anger? At the point of self-display, we attach, form a meaning and identify with anger: anger matters and we feed it with the kerosene of further thoughts, justifying the anger and making it solid, habitual, cutting off self-liberation. This way, anger being justified, anger becomes us. In time we might not just “hulk out” but become The Hulk.

It therefore behoves us to explore anger and we might bring one of most fundamental practices of mindfulness to bear here, that of leaning into our experience with acceptance. We might ask ourselves:

  1. What is the use of this anger? What will change as a result of me being angry?
  2. What fear does my anger reveal? What does my anger show me that I care about? (it’s hard to be angry about something you don’t care for)
  3. How does anger feel in the body? If I allow anger to work its way through my physical system, does it self-liberate?

So, this is a thought-emotions-feeling approach, an integral approach to mindfulness of anger.

But mindfulness might teach us more. Mindfulness brings the nature of mind into the forefront of any conversation, and what it might point out is that our whole range of afflicted emotions, (anger, aggression, jealously, ignorance, pride and more) these are all mind states that self-arise, self-display and can self-liberate; these are the waves, that if left alone will fall back into ocean of liberated consciousnesses or awareness.

The suggestion that we have to explore one drop of water or one wave after another is perhaps unnecessary when we can explore the nature of waves (or the nature of being wavey!) falling back into the ocean. Leaning into the experience, the nature of mind is penetrated and allows us to gain insight not just of the coarse (known) thoughts that arise such as anger, but the more subtle thoughts that might be underneath, such as care or sadness: anger is an energy and there is a drive that drives it which we often defend against, so to speak.

Thought experiment: tomorrow’s anger. Reflect on a time when you were angry tomorrow. Recall the event as if it was scene in a movie. See if you can achieve a sensory take on that scene, such as what will happen, the colours, the emotions. Feel into your angry thoughts. What will make you angry? What emotions are sure to be triggered? What will it feel like? How familiar will all of this be?  Is this absurd? How can you get angry about something that does not exist? But you do get angry about something that does not exist: the past. The past does not exist yet the anger persists. How is that? Keep your attention on the present moment. Where is anger now? Anger keeps us locked into the past, in a dead land and takes us away from the life that’s here.

In Buddhist Madhyamaka it is suggested that “the emptiness of one is the emptiness of all[4]”. Thus, if anger can be self-liberated, all toxic mind states can be. In this way anger is a great teacher, a guide to a deeper wisdom and we can both welcome and embrace the insight it brings to us; it is a gate to our unknown potential and our liberation. This could be the end of our Groundhog Day.

 

 

[1] Mind Beyond Death by Dzogchen Ponlop

[2] From Mindfulness to Insight by Choden, Nairn & Regan-Addis

[3] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1037/1089-2680.5.4.323?journalCode=rgpa

[4] https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0098337

 

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Walking therapy: what is it, why do we do it?

“walking is exploring the mystery of presence” -Frederic Gros

“the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” -Lao Tzu

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” -John Muir

The formula for talking therapy is a similar one across many different modalities. Whether the client is offered cognitive behavioural therapy, person centred or psychodynamic therapy, the client sits more of less opposite the therapist in various rooms or offices (such as school classrooms, rooms in GP surgeries, spa-like therapy centres and so on). It’s a sitting down practice, and quite a cognitive one, too.

But there is a growing recognition that clients can be offered more; they often do not want to go from an artificially lit office with their heads full of work into yet another one, inevitably inhabiting the same sense of cognitive, stuffy bias. So, since 2017 I have offered clients the opportunity of engaging in walking-as well as talking-therapy.

This is not so new. Freud would walk with his clients around the Ringstrasse in Vienna, literally walking the talking. Clay Cockrell, founder of Walk and Talk therapy in New York sees around 40 clients a week in Central Park. Jonathan Hoban has published a book Walk with Your Wolf (2019) about just this[1]. Duval[2] in a research paper suggests that walking creates improvements in both mood and attentional functioning; Morgan et al sum up the psychological and relational benefits of walking neatly in their research paper called Walking Towards a New Me[3]. Miyazaki’s book Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bathing supplies us with solid evidence of walking in his chapter the science behind nature therapy[4].

It’s catching on.

I first experimented with this in 2011 when I undertook the Studies in Mindfulness post graduate diploma through Aberdeen University; as well as an exploration of Buddhist psychology and the neuroscience of compassion, mindful walking was included as a foundational practice in the programme, and after reflecting on the impact on me-lowered blood pressure, less stress, improved mood and a general feeling of being more friendly to myself (a new me!)-I began to focus on it as a core mindfulness practice whilst training others, and then I brought it into the therapeutic space.

I found myself inspired by the poetry of walking, heeding Mary Oliver’s words in Wild Geese: 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” or Rilke, who writes in A Walkwe are grasped by what we cannot grasp” as particularly redolent of an embodied connection that can be found in walking the talking. These things are not always so noticeable in sitting therapy; when walking, clients appear to achieve insights which are more poetic, expressive and at times more flowing. The person centred therapist Nick Totten[5] writes of the experience of the liminal self that is experienced when we lean in to the threshold of our wilder side; I would suggest that this is akin to Rachel Corby’s notion of rewilding ourselves[6] and Mark Colemans[7] concept of “uniting our inner and outer wilderness.” It is finding our whole self, a self that we have, at times, lost in our busy living, step by step.
I have had feedback from clients that walking therapy works particularly well in helping to treat stress, anxiety, depression and furthermore enables the client to achieve what the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson[8] calls “installation” or a more fully embodied experience and understanding of their situations and history, as opposed to a purely cognitive one; a sense of somatic change. Added to which, the positive impact of walking on the beach (in summer, barefoot) or in parks with trees and open skies is well researched[9]-immersing ourselves in nature helps us to ground and lowers our fight, flight and freeze responses considerably.

Walking outdoors helps us to connect, and importantly it helps us to connect with the somatic or animal side of us that we spend so much time splitting off in our daily working lives.

How does this work?

Walking therapy may not take a whole 50-minute session (though some clients have asked for extended 90 minutes sessions) but can be 20, 30-minute parts of sessions. We co-construct an agreement around confidentiality, what to do if either us chances upon somebody we might know, and the terrain itself with its challenges. I then invite a prewalk reflection and, of course a postwalk one too. Then we’re off, walking at the client’s pace.

Sometimes we have focussed on breathing, exploring our sensory experience, and processing issues and problems, or aspects of personal development in this ambulatory manner. Sometimes we just stop, sit and reflect on the walking or the discussion we have had. Sometimes we just sit and look at the sky, the sea or the trees around us, alive in the sense of presence. We explore posture, physical feelings of the sun, the wind or the rain on us.

Clients who are CEOs and managers, leaders of all kinds who are close to, or who have experienced burnout, find this walking therapy especially beneficial: we take 50 minutes to do an unwinding walk, then back to work the leader goes, anchored and refreshed.

Parents of babies or very young children, who would find their child a distraction in the therapy room or cannot find a babysitter to do indoor work find walking therapy useful; the baby is in the buggy, often asleep and we walk the talk.

One of the subjects that comes up regularly in walking theory is spirituality. Perhaps being close to nature allows us all to decompress and reflect on our wider, transpersonal selves that might connect to something vaster and more meaningful, which finds its expression in what Corby calls “the dark cry of the soul”[10].

Clients have also chosen to walk around places where they used to live or where family members lived in the past, using the actual terrain as a way of evoking and processing past memories in a very real and concrete way.

Supervision whilst walking has been successful, with the supervisees reporting increased vitality and showing creative reflections on casework; again, it is often the embodied “permission to pause and notice” within the work that many find deeply facilitative.

I’m building on this, and in the next few months am going to collate more case studies and plan to deliver a continuing professional development (CPD) workshop on my findings.

Watch this space and go in by walking out!

[1] Its not just in therapy where this occurs, coaches are walking too see https://brightspacethinking.co.uk/why-i-love-fresh-air-thinking-and-why-you-should-try-it-too-2/

[2] Duvall, J. (2011). Enhancing the benefits of outdoor walking with cognitive engagement strategies. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 27-35.

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20551485

[4] Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bathing for health and relaxation

[5] Nick Totten Wild Therapy

[6] Rachel Corby Rewilding Yourself: becoming nature

[7] Mark Coleman Awake in the Wild: mindfulness in nature as a path of self-discovery

[8] see Choden, Nairn and Regan Addis From Mindfulness to Insight

[9] https://foresteurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Forest_book_final_WEBpdf.pdf and https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/health/06real.html

[10] Rachel Corby Rewilding Yourself: becoming nature

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The feeling of me, the idea of me

“what began simply as a sensory experience has become part of my identity. It has come into my existence as a thing instead of a passing object of perception and experience”[1]

“first there’s me, then there’s mine, then there’s trouble”[2]

This June morning is sunny and warm. I’ve left my house and walked the 10 minutes or so to the beach. I take my sandals off and I can feel the sand beneath my feet, hundreds of particles of sand rubbing into my toes. The surf comes and goes; it’s cool and as I walk into the water it refreshes my feet and ankles. The horizon seems vast and cloudless. I can smell the salty air. I stand still and allow my attention to gently focus on my senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, sound. Standing still I can also bring my attention to the feeling of me, the sensations inside me, the feeling of being, sensations which, like the surf itself relentlessly come and go, as if they belong to something vaster. The feeling of me.

This feeling of me feels connected, embodied, energetic and free. It feels open and untroubled. Phenomena comes and goes and it always will. There is a sense of dynamic movement within me, yet a feeling of being grounded, connected.

Then something else happens. I begin to-in a flash-get an idea about this feeling of me. I reflect on my experience, ask myself some questions such as “what’s this about?” or make a statement such as “this feels good” and wonder how I might have the good feeling again. I begin to label my experience, attempting to capture or package the feeling of me.

Something’s happened. The feeling of me has turned into an idea of me. The surf, the sensations of being have paused, frozen into concept.

This is, perhaps the way it happens. As soon as I switch to the idea of me, I compare my experience, place it in a category that helps explain the feeling of me. It’s almost as if my mind or my brain wants to predict or classify my experience and base it on past experience. Why would I want to do this? Now I’m becoming identified with this idea of me-and what might be mine.

This takes around a second, or less.

I experience the embodied, sensory me. There then is an involuntary (where does it come from?) need to conceptualise this, to anchor it by comparing it to previous experiences. I reify the experience as mine, and grasp, attach, fuse to this as idea and identity. This is me. This is my story, my narrative, mine. Its happening, though I’m not sure exactly what it is that is happening. But it is me, mine, and I’ll defend it as such. This way I am real, solid; I have an identity, I’m somebody and I will spend much of my time fused to this and justifying this somebody.

This idea of me, I begin to notice, occurs with more frequency as I grow and experience bad things. I actually appear to have a bias in my ideas towards negative experiences, they really mean something to me and I can recall them with a vividness that simply is not present around good experiences. They tell me that the world can be bad-and they tell me to be careful. They also tell me that I can-am-bad and should be ashamed to be like this. I seem to prefer these stories about being bad so cling on to them, sort of identify with them as me, mine.

I don’t really have a very satisfying, happy life, I seem to have taken the feeling of me, with all of its life and liberty and turned it into an idea of me, filled with dead concepts; am I this, this cognitive prison camp? I’ve taken my pain and turned it into a huge story of suffering: I am my suffering.

Is there no way out?

I turn my attention to the suffering self with kindness, as if I could hold this suffering in a sense of compassionate embrace; I see it with eyes wide open and try to wholeheartedly befriend it. I fail. I try again-are we not all like this in one way or another? I take my attention to the feeling of me, where I am, standing on the beach. For a moment or two the idea of me disappears (where does it go to?) and I am immersed in the embodied sensation of not me, but just this, just this. I suddenly realise that my suffering vanished (where did it go?) as if it was never real.

Then something else happens. I begin to-in a flash-get an idea about this feeling of me. I reflect on my experience, ask myself some questions such as “what’s this about” or make a statement such as “this feels good” and wonder how I might have the good feeling again. I begin to label my experience, attempting to capture or package the feeling of me.

Something’s happened. The feeling of me has turned into an idea of me. The surf, the sensations of being have paused, frozen into concept.

And so, the cycle continues.

Yet every time I bring my attention to this, gently and with a mindful, compassionate embrace the grasping, the fusion, weakens slightly, the story of suffering is not the only story; in fact, the story is replaced by the feeling of just being, a “seeing from the heart”[3].

And so, the cycle continues. Yet in kindly facing, rather than ignoring, my habit of creating and defending an idea of me and mine, perhaps here lies some kind of mindful liberation.

 

[1] Rob Nairn, Choden, & Heather Regan Addis From Mindfulness to Insight

[2] Akong Rinpoche

[3] Rob Nairn, Choden, & Heather Regan Addis From Mindfulness to Insight

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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).

bus-stop-72171_1280

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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