When I was a junior monk my Abbot used to say that mindfulness training is like building a preasure cooker, a container, that can hold the intensity of the chaos that occurs within our mind and heart. Jon Kabbat Zinn, the founder of secular mindfulness who created the 8 week mindfulness course taught for recovery from stress and anxiety, also emphasised that mindfulness practice is not necessarily about being calm or relaxed, but of bringing a calm and compassionate noticing to whatever is here in our experience right now.
This emphasises that our practice is one of learning to be with whatever is here, to hold and explore it with curiosity and an open heart. When I first learnt to meditate I had a very different attitude, it was of wanting to eradicate the unwelcome thoughts, and escape to a place of peace. At times my meditation would become peaceful, and I would then think I was succeeding. Then worry or anxiety would arise, and I would think I had failed.
This creation of the duality of success and failure is the very thing that keeps the struggle alive. What I learnt as I entered training in the monastery was that the ego mind that was wanting peace, that judged and compared and labelled things as a success or a failure was the origin of this struggle. One of my teachers would always say of whatever was occurring “this is how it is”, not this is right, that is wrong, simply, “this is how it is” and the encouragement was to rest in a noticing of how joy felt in the moment, how anxiety or fear felt in the moment. To notice the mind that makes joy or anxiety right or wrong and creates a feeling of conflict by rejecting the present moment in favour of an idea of how it should be.
This helped me to come to a peace that was rooted in being centred rather than being happy. Happiness will come, it lasts for some time and it passes. Being present to the present moment in contrast can include an awareness of feeling sad, frightened, anxious and not feel overwhelmed by it.
This is still work in progress for me. I can slip into identifying with the moods and forget to come to centre. But over time it becomes easier to remember and when I notice this and then re-centre it gives me a resource to hold whatever is there. My practice at these times become the container, the pressure cooker, that my first Abbot described: the ability to hold the chaos without being consumed by it.
An image that I use to remind myself of this is the calm eye at the centre of a hurricane. For much of our life the weather can be clear, open and sunny. But when a storm arises the tendency can be to then resist this loss of calm, to want to make it go away. If I start to fight the hurricane of worry, anxiety or fear then all I do is go deeper into the storm. But if I can find my centre, through feeling my body, resting awareness on the breath and opening to the sensations I feel in my body that are connected with the difficult emotions, then the calm is here, right in the middle of the storm. It is the calm of presence, awareness and a non judgemental noticing of the present moment.
If you are interested in this approach I’ll be exploring it over the 8 week mindfulness course, The Happy Heart, starting on 25th September. There are still places available. For more details click here