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Finding freedom by listening to our body with calm attention

One of the joys of teaching mindfulness is that I make new friends through the people who come on my courses or to the class. These friends initially come to learn mindfulness and I am in the role of a teacher, but as they then establish their own practice they become fellow practitioners and can often end up teaching me, inspiring me as they share their experience. This happens with a number of people, but a few weeks ago I received a text that was beautiful in its succinct expression of the power of mindful enquiry.

The person who sent this had initially come on an 8 week mindfulness course I ran a few years ago. They found it very hard at first to connect with the body scan and to notice any sensation in their body. But they kept going, slowly opening to noticing the sensations they had spent so long being cutting off from. There were times when this meant feeling a lot of things they had not wanted to feel, but over time it has become a gift.

I had sent them a link to a teacher I am currently interested in, called Micheal Rodriguez, who spoke of being with difficult feelings in the body and how we want to run away from them, but in turning to feel them we can find a freedom that is blissful. In response he sent me this text. In subsequent conversations I asked if it was ok to share it as it has a few things in that I found very moving.

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This is something I have been hearing from different teachers recently, the emphasis on trusting that within the chaos of experience there is a stillness that is always accessible. When I visited my old monastery last year and met with the Abbot there, he spoke of how mindfulness is a practice for building a container that can hold the chaos, enabling us to be present with our struggles without being overwhelmed. 

There’s a Tibetan saying about meditation: “better not to start, having started better not to stop”. What this refers to is that as we learn to meditate we open to so much that we once were oblivious to. It may feel at first that things are getting worse rather than better, as we feel more deeply into all of the things we had pushed away into the shadow of denial. Having started this process if we stop then we are simply stuck in a place of feeling more without any release from this deep intensity. As we continue with this mindful enquiry though we can start to sense that we are not just the chaos, instead we start to wake up to the witness.

In the Thai Forest tradition in which I trained, they refer to ‘the one who knows’. This is the wisdom that arises as we practice mindfulness. It is the mind’s ability to know all that arises as a creation and to know not to believe the stories the mind weaves about things. It is the wisdom that can hear an unpleasant sound and instead of going into thoughts of dislike and disgruntlement, simply knows it as a sound, with certain qualities of tone, pitch and volume. Or someone can say something hurtful to us and it is known for what it is: an opinion from another that we give life to by either liking what they say or disliking it.

Our suffering starts when we pick up what they offer, start identifying with it, believing that we are as bad as they say, or getting angry with them because we feel they are disrespecting us. If we leave it for them to hold, then, to summarise a metaphor the Buddha used, it is like an unwanted present we choose not to accept. As we listen quietly like this to our reaction to what they say, to their words and how they are being, we may even pick up a sense of their words coming from a place of pain or suffering – envy, anger or resentment. If we hear this then our potential anger may turn into compassion for them. 

Our minds are meaning making machines – we look for meaning and weave stories around what we see, hear and sense. The ‘one that knows’, the wisdom of stillness, knows not to buy into that drama. Instead it notices with a calm attention, sensing how our response to something is starting to create eddies in the mind – little ripples of attraction or aversion that in a few moments can become crashing waves of elation or despair. 

Ajahn Chah would always teach that mindfulness is the way to connect with ‘the one that knows’ – the state of mindful and non-reactive Awareness that we connect with when looking with a calm and clear attention at any sensory experience that arise in our body-mind: thoughts and bodily sensations.   As my friend did this, they first noticed the intensity of emotions in their body. As Ajahn Chah has said of meditation, “unless you have cried deeply you have not even started to meditate”, Awareness will open us to the fear, the pain, the trauma we have for so long denied. But as Ajahn Chah also says of meditation: “when you sit, let it be, when you walk, let it be, grasp at nothing, resist nothing”. The state of knowing, ‘the one that knows’ arises as we turn with calm presence to our experience right now – neither trying to push it away, nor deny it or make it otherwise to what it is.

Ajahn Sumedho, my teacher from the monastery who trained under Ajahan Chah in Thailand, puts it like this:

“In the moment of mindfulness, there is no suffering. I can’t find any suffering in mindfulness; it’s impossible; there’s absolutely none. But when there’s heedlessness, there is a lot of suffering in my mind. If I give in to grasping things, to wanting things, to following emotions or doubts and worries and being caught up in things like that—then there is suffering. It all begins from my grasping. But when there is mindfulness and right understanding, then I can’t find any suffering at all in this moment, now.”

In the text above, my friend felt into the intensity of the experience that was presenting itself in that moment, knew it, and trusted that there was a stillness that was not the difficult emotions or painful sensations. In that moment the ‘one that knows’ arose and there was a clear seeing and suffering came to an end, at least for a few seconds! These little insights at first seem insignificant, but the wise people I was so lucky to live with in the monastery were examples of how with persistent and committed practice there can be a shift – from these being brief glimpse of insight, to living from this as an ongoing experience. 

If you would like to explore this further, the full text of Ajhan Chah’s talk is here, and the full text of Ajhan Sumedo’s talk is here. The video I mentioned at the start of the email is below. 

 

9 Year Anniversary

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In April 2009 there was an article in Boyz about a new group for gay men that had recently started in London. It was the first in a new section they were launching called ‘passions’ where gay men shared what they were passionate about. I had recently started the group at its first venue, the Light Centre in Victoria, and was looking to promote the sessions so had contacted Boyz. Little did I know that this fortnightly class, initially meeting on Sunday mornings with about 10 people would still be going 9 years latter and that over 1,000 men would have come to the class. 

It took  many years of encouragement from a good friend, Juan Serrano, before I took the leap and set up the group. Without his confidence in me I don’t think I would ever have done it. A big thank you to him! I still remember him telling me how there was a gay meditation group back in Madrid, and how he was sure if Spanish men would come to a mindfulness class then it would be possible in London.

After about 6 months of meeting in the Light Centre I  decided to find a new venue where we could meet weekly. I remembered the room that Bodhi had used for his Five Rhythms dance class. I had assisted Bodhi with setting up the class each week and I remembered it was somewhere central and was a good sized room and so contacted the venue and arranged to go in and visit. On meeting with the Warden there it turned out a room had recently become free on Monday nights, so I had the chance to book it.

The only difficulty was that I needed to pay for three months in advance, and put down a deposit of three months – so I had to find 6 months rent. I did not have £1600 and for a moment I thought to just let it pass and leave the meeting. Instead I said I would go ahead and made the booking. Then came the question of how to pay! A friend agreed to lend me £800. I then spoke with my mother to ask for a loan. She spoke to my step father – who when I first came out many years earlier had not had the most positive attitude to me being gay! But he agreed, and they leant me the other £800. 

I feel a huge sense of gratitude to the people who helped to make the group possible at the start. Juan for his encouragement, Bodhi for providing me with an idea of where to run the group, David Hews for his generosity and trust in me to lend £800 and my mother and step-father, Jillian and Steve Clements for their support. 

Then came the other forms of support. Graham Humphreys offered his time as a designer to create the first fliers for the group:

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A big thank you also to Kevin O’Neil who helped me set up my website and blog to help promote the group. Then there are the people who helped as the group got established. Andy Jones who used to come in early to help set up and made it so much easier to get the room ready than doing it on my own. Meirion Todd, Tim Waldron, Malcolm Morris and the others who were the first door babes and kitchen angels. Without them it would have been so much harder to have run the group as it became established. A big thank you to Ian Patrick who was one of the first to help with the clean up at the end and for years oversaw the washing up. Ian has been our longest standing regular, seeing the group as it has developed over the years since he first came in 2010.

A big thank you to Kam Munsamy who gave his time for free to take group photos for our first publicity and has come in again more recently to take photos of the group.

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These are a few of the people who were involved or helped as the group became established. There were also indirectly my teachers from the monastery, from whom I had learnt what I then went on to share through the group.  The training in the monastery continues to underpin my practice which in turn informs how I teach at the group. 

Then there have been the many people since who have given their time on the door and in helping to make tea, wash up and clear away at the end. A big thank you to all of you! Dan and Sam who for some time were the main door babes and whose commitment to helping meant there was always someone there at the door to welcome people as they arrived. Alex who helped on the door before Sam and Dan and is now once more assisting as a door babe. Then there are the rest of the current door babes: Frank, Boyan, Howard, Kelvin, Lloyd and Simon. Thanks to them there is always a smiling face to welcome you at the door and give new members a few minutes introduction. I’m sure all of you remember your first time and just how much a difference it made to have someone there to greet you and help put you at your ease as you arrived. 

There will be people I have forgotten in this list, and my apologies if your name is not here  – but thank you to everyone who has leant their time to help over the years. 

Buddhism teaches interdependence – that we live as part of an interconnected whole and are not isolated individuals acting  with only our own agency. Remembering all of the people who contributed to the early years of the group I feel an immense sense of gratitude for their contribution, and it is a reminder that I didn’t do this alone, but with their help. Without any one of them it would have been a slightly different group. We live in this matrix of interconnecting influences, but often do not see all of the people involved with an event we go to or an experience we have. 

It’s useful to remember that we never really do anything in isolation. Our successes are built on our connections with others. The sense of self-worth and confidence we have got from the encouragement a teacher gave us on seeing a skill, or family and parents instilled in us. Our failures too grow from our interaction with others – the fear we have to put ourselves forward that may come from a chance remark of a teacher many years ago still lodged in our being. As I look to go forward from here, keeping the group healthy and thriving, I know that I do it not just on my own, but through the help of others, and through you…all of the people who have come to the group  in the past or are still coming now, and those yet to come to the group in the future who in their turn will take on a role in helping and supporting. 

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