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Posts tagged ‘happiness’

Autopilot behaviour – what keeps you trapped in old patterns?

We all know the feeling – we are on our way home from work, following a familiar route, as we get near we suddenly realise the thing we had intended doing on the way:  the place we meant to stop off at or even the person we were supposed to meet! Autopilot can be as extreme as this or simply be the automatic routines we have created in our days: our morning routine, our route to work. It can also show up in our patterns of thinking and responding to situations.

Some autopilots serve us, but others can be based on old messages and scripts that have become our distorted truth. Perhaps we have a limiting belief about ourselves or our abilities. Perhaps we hold back from certain things thinking it is not for us. We limit the flow of our spontaneity.

Learning to notice these autopilot behaviours and thoughts is the first stage in letting them go. As we meditate we become better able to be present to our thoughts and feelings, and there’s a natural process of recognising these. As you sit in meditation, simply notice the unedited flow of thoughts and responses to thoughts. Notice if any of these seem to fall into patterns of belief about yourself. It can be really helpful to then discuss this with people who are open to exploring deeper self-awareness – with a therapist if you have one, or close friends, or in a group.

The first week of the 8 week mindfulness course explores autopilots in more detail, and it then forms the basis of the whole course, bringing awareness to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Seeing how we can let go of those that do not serve us. If you are interested in exploring this more, there are still places available eon the Spring course.


 

“This course was very powerful and has been life changing. It has really helped me to focus on the ‘Here and now’ rather than getting caught up in ruminative thinking. I have a tendency to worry about the future and about events that have not yet occurred and this was making me feel very stressed. Applying the techniques and mindfulness strategies I learnt on the course I feel better able to cope and although I still feel anxious this tends to diminish more quickly.”

Kensington Council 8 week course participant, 2016


 

Thursday evenings

May: 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st

June: 7th, 14th, 21st

Silent practice day. Date to be confirmed.

Time: 7.00 – 9.40 pm

Venue:

Chadswell Healthy Living Centre

Lower Ground Floor, Chadswell
Harrison Street
London
WC1H 8JE

MAP

Nearst tube: Kings Cross

£295 (£200 concessions for unwaged, students and those in need)

Booking confirmed on receipt of full payment.

To book email: nick@evolvingminds.org.uk

Call: 07910 224 560

For more details of the course click here

The Five Hindrances

Last week I was talking about dreams and how we can wake up within the dream to a state of lucid awareness. In the previous weeks I’ve been looking at how we can bring greater clarity to our emotional world though recognising our habit patterns when in a relationship – being avoidant, anxious or secure. The key to both lucid dreaming and lucid living is to be able to rest into a clear awareness of our present moment experience as we meditate. Mindfulness practice is not about controlling the mind or making it other than how it is – but of resting in a state of open attentiveness to the present moment, recognising how certain movements of the heart-mind lead to greater well being and calm, whilst others lead to stress, unhappiness and upset.

In a way it is not that we meditate to make the heart-mind better and different to how it is right now, but  rather our meditation allows our heart-mind to settle into its natural state, which is calm, expansive and luminous – just as the ocean will be still and calm when the winds stop whipping it up into towering waves.

The winds that disturb the natural clarity of our heart-mind have been described as the five hindrances. Each hindrance has its own flavour and over the next five emails I’ll explore each hindrance. But first, to give an overview here are all five:

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will
3. Lethargy and drowsiness
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Doubt

Each hindrance is compared to the natural clarity of the still heart-mind, which is said to be like clear water. Sensual desire is said to be like water filled with dye. The bright colours make it impossible to see the natural clarity of the water in its pure state.


1. Sensual desire

The Buddha taught that what ‘we think we become’. In the opening verses of a collection of teachings called The Dhammapada the Buddha says:

 

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Whilst food, beautiful sights, sex and sensual experiences can all be enjoyable in the moment, allowing the attention of our heart to dwell on the desire for them is not helpful to resting into the natural state of calm abiding that can be experienced through meditation. If you really investigate how it feels to be sitting in meditation with desire you’ll notice a subtle aftertaste to the sweetness of desire that is slightly sour. The grasping heart-mind that looks outside of itself for pleasure presents us with the belief that if I can find what I want then I will be happy. But in the act of wanting there is a sense of frustration with the present moment experience that makes it hard to feel the peace that is here right now. 

If we are eating a meal, then the experience right now in the moment is of noticing the flavours, the scent of the food, enjoying each mouthful. If we are having sex then the experience in the moment is of savouring the taste, smells and physical contact we are experiencing in the moment. As soon as this experience becomes a memory or a desire for some similar experience in the future, it takes us out of the present moment and into longing and desire. 

If I am sitting in meditation and a sexual fantasy starts to play out in my mind, or a memory of a recent experience presents itself, it can feel very alluring to go with this thought. It seems to promise a sense of pleasure and excitement. But if I investigate what is actually happening I see that this sensual desire for something that is not here right now creates a movement in the heart-mind which is like the storm winds stirring up the calm surface of the ocean and leads away from any feeling of calm abiding I may have been experiencing. 

Wanting something I cannot have right now does not give me an experience of pleasure, but of lack. It makes the heart-mind restless, thinking about how it can get what is desired. In contrast, the moment of letting go into being here right now with the simplicity of bodily sensations and the happiness in the heart of being content in the moment gives a subtle sense of joy and peace that needs nothing outside of itself. 

As you meditate, notice what it is like to have desire for something that is not here right now – the sense of longing, slight feeling of lack of contentment, the increased sense of arousal it might cause that makes it harder to rest attention on something as simple and subtle as the breath. 

This is not to say you have to deny yourself that cream cake when in the tea room – enjoy the experience of it when it is there, but also notice that desire for a cream cake when no cream cake is present as a subtle form of suffering. The thought I want, I do not have, I desire all creates a sense of unfulfilment. The Buddha never told his followers that sex or luxury were wrong. Monks and nuns were expected to be celibate but not his lay followers. What he did say was that pursuing desire would not lead to the end of desire, whereas meditation can lead to a state fo freedom from wanting anything. Notice that however many cream cakes you have, or amazing sex, once this experience becomes a memory, there is an almost immediate desire for it to repeat.

I have never found the end of a desire by pursuing desire. There’s always that wish for just one more wafer thin mint at the end of a delicious meal! It becomes a case of the middle way – if we are not going to embrace a life of monastic celibacy and sensual restraint, how can we enjoy the pleasure of the world, without letting them become a source of distraction and dissatisfaction? In meditation we can notice what it is like to have desire for sensual pleasure arise as we sit, notice how it starts to stir the calm ocean of the heart-mind, how agitation and longing can arise and how these feel in contrast to a heart-mind that is at peace in itself. 

Another aspect of this hindrance is that by pursuing thoughts of sense desire we may then act in ways that lead away from peace of mind and heart. Think of the issues in the news right now of sexual abuse by people in positions of power, or our own unskilful actions when we attempted to grasp at something we were desiring without thought for how it might impact on another, these are all examples of how sensual desire may lead away from peace, ease and contentment.

I remember I was traveling through Italy when I was 19. I was in an hotel in Southern Italy where I had had a coffee on the last evening of my stay. It was in a lovely large mug and saucer. I had it in my room, and suddenly I felt desire to have it. I washed it and put it in my ruck sack. Latter the owner was so helpful in making arrangements for my journey back home I felt really bad about having taken the mug, but also embarrassed at putting it back out clean and washed in case it was obvious I had planned to take it….so I left it in my ruck sack. But on getting home I gave it away as it could no longer give me pleasure knowing I had taken it without permission and with greed in my heart. This was before I learnt to meditate or knew anything about Buddhism, if I had been meditating at that time I may well have felt in my meditation how the desire for this object was giving rise to suffering rather than pleasure and might well have just left it in my room rather than take it away. 

In contrast, when we let go of sensual desire for things of the past or anticipated in the future or desired right now, we can rest in a state of calm abiding that is pleasant and easeful right now without needing any external source or stimuli to give rise to the pleasure. As this happiness is based on the heart-mind resting into its natural state rather than reaching put for some external thing to give us happiness  the happiness of the heart-mind at peace is a state of freedom, as we can rest into it at any time without needing to find an object or sensory experience to give rise to our experience of pleasure.  

For a more detailed essay on the stages of calm abiding mediation click here

We are the peace we seek

In last weeks class I was talking about a Buddhist principle known as Buddha nature. This is the teaching that every sentient being has the quality of awakening as their true nature. As much as it may feel that we are searching for peace or freedom or liberation, what we are really doing, according to this teaching, is seeking to come home to ourselves and who we really are when we are no longer caught in the fight with thoughts and feelings and instead be the space in which they are arising.

The sense that there is a me that has to fix this suffering is so strong, and it creates an idea of me in time, where right now I am a mess but one day I will be sorted out and free. What the Buddha nature teaching points to is that right now we are the freedom we seek, but we do not see it. It is like a fish swimming around asking every sea creature it meets “have you seen water?” and they all say “no”. Finally this little fish goes to the wise fish living deep in the ocean in a dark cave and asks this fish “how do I find water?” The wise fish tells the fish who seeks: “you are water, water is in you and around you and is nowhere else but here right now”. The little fish feels bewildered, thinking “how can water be here right now, there’s nothing here that I can see as water, I better carry on searching to find someone who can really tell me how to find water” and with that swims off through the water that this little fish cannot yet perceive.

Wanting to find peace, escape the suffering of our thoughts, be free – it is like the little fish looking for water, not believing that it is here right now. The teachers I know and respect all point to this same teaching, that we are already the freedom we seek. The capacity of knowing, presence, awareness….whatever we call it….that is the awakened state. But we want it to be special. To be amazing and transforming. But if instead we can open to the magic of resting into the state of being that is open to this present moment as it is and embraces it with compassion and sees it with wisdom, then perhaps that is the opening to freedom.

The Buddha said that:  “There is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, and therefore there is an escape from the born, created, formed, originated. If it were not for the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, created, formed, originated, but because there is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there is an escape, there is liberation from the born, created, formed, originated” (Udana VIII.3). According to this text Enlightenment, or the state of  freedom, is unborn – therefore it is out of time. It is not a state we reach at some point when we are good enough or have put in enough effort to create it. It is here right now because it is timeless and therefore always present. We just have to wake up to who we really are.

 

 

This teaching has been my inspiration since I cam across it 20 years ago and I enjoy finding teachers who point towards the truth of this in their own teachings. The video below is by Jeff Foster and he speaks to a contemporary audience, but in a way that seems to resonate with the Buddha’s words above. At one point he says: “you are not trying to free yourself from thoughts and feelings, you are the freedom….freedom is your nature”. He goes on to talk of the metaphor of the sky, which allows the clouds and different weather events to occur within it: being the space that allows this without being the weather. In the same way if we can start to connect with our ability to know our experience without having to be identified with it or fight it we can be like the sky: allowing fear, sorrow, anger, joy and happiness to arise within our experience but without labelling it ‘mine’ to be held on to or got rid of. It is known, welcomed and allowed to arise and pass away according to its nature. 

This is the way Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master, taught meditation: to be the one who knows, the participant observer who is both witness and the experience being witnessed. 

In the 7 minute video below Jeff Foster describes the state of allowing that resonates so closely with the Buddha’s description of the unborn state of freedom and Ajahn Chah’s teachings.  He talks of the difficult emotions as being like a child standing in the doorway of the present moment. So often we slam the door on that child saying he does not belong here. There should be a different child standing in the door. We try to ‘let go of’ the difficult thoughts or feeling, which Jeff says is basically an expression of not wanting them, of being in deep resistance to the thought or feeling. Instead by releasing from the idea of release we are simply present. Sadness is not asking to be let go of, transcended or heeled. All these thoughts and feelings are asking for is to know if there is room for them. So often we say no. Ending this struggle means turning towards whatever thought or feeling is arising and knowing it as it is. That which knows is calm and peaceful: presence is peace and freedom, even if what it is present to is chaos. 

This is the challenge for me now in my practice: how to let go of the desire to reach Enlightenment, let go of the thought I can fix myself and be free from any unwanted thoughts and emotions. Instead open to being the space for whatever is arising to exist, and pass away according to its nature…..without then making being present a goal! I enjoy listening to Jeff teach as he speaks to that in me which recognises the truth  of what he shares. I hope you may find the same, or have your own teachers who help you connect to your innate wisdom. 

 

Meeting the Inner Critic

When I pay attention to my inner dialogue and how I talk to myself I’ve sometimes thought that if I spoke to others in the way I do to myself I soon would not have any friends! Who wants to hang around with someone who after a minor incident turns to them and says “idiot”, “how can you be so stupid!”, “what’s wrong with you?”, “when will you learn?” etc – fill in your own favourite you use with yourself!  This inner critic is the mind’s attempt to guard against danger, having stored previous examples that were registered as mistakes and are therefore to be avoided again.

The problem is, that when the brain was being formed the examples we internalised would often be statements from exasperated parents who would snap at us out of their place of wounding, rather than talking to us as mature adults. You spill coffee in the back seat of the car. A parent shouts at you “you stupid boy”. If we could reason with the parent we might say, as one little girl did in an example I heard, “I’m not stupid, I’ve done something stupid.” Most of us don’t have the perspicacity of this girl to challenge the statement, instead we take in the meaning that spilling coffee marks us out as being stupid. In future any similar incident will be flagged up as a danger to be avoided and if we do once again spill coffee the inner critic will immediately supply the criticism.

Looking on line for more on this issue I found the following webpage which outlines seven types of inner-critic and gives a simple definition of it: “The Inner-Critic is the part of you that judges you, demeans you, and pushes you to do things. It lowers your sense of self-worth and makes you feel bad about yourself.”

Jay Early, PHD goes on to define seven types of Inner-Critic:

1. Perfectionist
This Critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It has very high standards for behaviour, performance, and production. Sometimes it prevents you from creating anything for fear it won’t be good enough. Sometimes it makes you work forever trying to perfect something.

2. Inner Controller
This Critic tries to control impulsive behaviour that might not be good for you or others, or might be dangerous. It tends to be harsh and shaming when you slip up.

3. Taskmaster
This Critic tries to get you to work hard or be disciplined in order to be successful or to avoid being mediocre. It can cause over-striving and workaholism.

4. Underminer
This Critic tries to undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem so you won’t take risks that might be dangerous, or so you won’t try and fail, or so you won’t get to big or powerful or visible and therefore be attacked or rejected. It makes you feel worthless.

5. Destroyer
This Critic makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It shames you deeply. It believes you shouldn’t exist.

6. Guilt-Tripper
This Critic attacks you for some specific action you have taken or not taken in the past or for repeated behaviour that has been harmful to others or violates a deeply-help value. It makes you feel guilty and will never forgive you.

7. Moulder
This Critic tries to get you to fit a certain mould or be a certain way that comes from your family or culture—e.g. caring, aggressive, polite. It attacks you when you aren’t and praises you when you are. If the mould doesn’t fit who you are, it constantly makes you feel inadequate.

Jay Earl goes on to say: “Despite the pain they cause, each type of Inner Critic is actually trying to help you or protect you from pain, in its own distorted way. By determining which types of Inner Critics you have, you can more easily get to know them and find out what they are trying to do for you. This makes it possible to develop a cooperative relationship with the Critic and transform it into a positive resource for you.”

 

 

As I sit in meditation it becomes a place to experience all of this. When I went back to visit my Abbot at the monastery in Northumberland where I spent my first three years of training we spoke about this. He talked of how the practice is about learning to be with the chaos of our inner world. Mindfulness is not about getting calm and making the mind quiet. That is to mistake the final flowering of practice with the early stages of practice. Mindfulness can help calm the mind and its story telling – but to see through the story teller completely means sitting in the eye of the storm as it plays itself out. 

Learning to be with the inner critic but not to believe it is part of this process of being with the chaos. 

Loving-Kindness practice gives us the chance to bring some kindness to our experience and to explore wishing ourself well whilst mindfulness practice offers the chance to sit with bare attention, experiencing the storm winds of ego identity, but with the opportunity to let go of this identity and recognise it for what it is: “a story told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Perhaps Macbeth’s words are a bit harsh, but we can recognise that these inner worlds of thought identities have been created by the meaning making machine of the mind and only have the power to harm if we believe them to be objective truth and take them on as a legitimate criticism of who we are. 

The first stage is to be able to name the inner critic rather than take it as just an objective inner commentary. So looking at the list above, see if you recognise any as your own habit patterns of thought.  Then as they arise see what it is like to start naming them rather than believing them. 

We’ll return to this list next week to continue to explore this theme of naming the inner critic and defusing it: no longer letting it stick to us with the belief it is who we are, but recognising it as a habit pattern in the mind that gets triggered to play its familiar refrain, but just because it feels familiar this does not mean it is true or even relevant. 

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Loving ourselves…with a little help from our friends

Last week I was away in Spain on a dance retreat so was not able to send a group email. Thank you to Andy Butterfield for taking the class. I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the different perspective he was able to bring by teaching from his experience of practice.

Whilst on the retreat I was exploring in my meditation and through the dance the feeling of being connected to friends.  This ties in with a new approach to the Loving Kindness meditation that I read about recently and will be exploring in the group on Mondays over this month.

One of the things I have heard consistently over the 27 years that I have taught meditation is the difficulty some people feel in being able to connect with wishing themselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation. It can feel forced or artificial to make this wish for oneself, or the inner critic that says one is being self-indulgent or selfish can arise, making it hard to feel a real sense of self-care.

On the retreat I had a chat with someone who told me how grateful he was for the practice, as he had been  able to use the reflections as a recitation during a time of emotional turmoil, repeating the phrases over and over as a wish for himself:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

Connecting with the phrases as a wish for oneself can allow the heart to find its own way of opening to this feeling of self-care. I know someone else who has said that when in a depressive episode she cannot practice mindfulness as it is too much to sit with the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, but she can practice loving Kindness, wishing herself to be well, telling herself she cares for herself and wishes for her happiness.

Hearing this I realise how important it is that we have a feeling of being able to turn to the Loving Kindness practice as a resource rather than dismiss it as the practice we cannot do. Over this month the theme of the emails will be around self-care and self-love so that we have a consistent opportunity to explore this aspect of the practice.

Rather than always feeling we have to move away from the broken person we feel we are, how would it be if we stepped towards being the whole being that we are? We were not born broken or self-sabotaging. We learnt not to like ourselves. A baby does not feel it does not deserve to be loved, it does not hold back its cries feeling it should not bother anyone or that it should wait to be seen. We learn the belief that “I do not matter”, or “my needs are not important” or “I should not be a bother” or “I can only be worthy of love if I am serving another/ am funny enough/ have a good enough body….” or whatever our inner script may be.

Over the dance retreat I was able to feel how strongly I feel my needs do not matter, feel the fear of reaching out to connect, the belief I am too much and will only swap the other if I do try to connect, the fear of being rejected and the hope of being noticed. In one exercise we danced with rejection. Our partner had to ignore us as we danced. It was so painful. At first I danced with freedom and ease, in the flow of my dance. Then seeing that my partner was ignoring me I tried to attract his attention, dancing closer, my movements becoming more exaggerated. But still he looked at his nails or looked thorough me.

Then, without any thought about what I would do next my dance suddenly changed. My movements became small, timid, afraid of causing offence. I came close to my partner, trying to be in contact with his body as he ignored me. My hands coming to rest on my chest in a self embrace that did nothing to mitigate the feeling of panic at not being seen. I then stayed in this slow, small, constricted dance hoping if I were quiet and good enough my partner might then choose to notice me. In the space of five minutes my body was able to relive my experience of being a child who was not seen, and I felt the impact of making myself small in the hope that whatever it was I was doing wrong would no longer cause offence and I would once more be loved.

Over the rest of the retreat I stayed with this sense of making myself small and also of seeing how I could connect out to others. In one session I lost any feeling of being able to dance freely and was standing, with my arms around myself, my eyes closed, my head hanging down. My legs wrapped around themselves. Stuck to the spot. Feeling alone. Isolated. Not wanted. Incapable of connecting out……..

Then the most amazing thing….the sensation of fingers brushing against my head, neck and back. Then a hand giving support, then two hands resting on my back, coming down to my waist, inviting movement in my hips and back. And like a tightly curled bud my limbs released and moved and opened and expanded from their tight constriction until I was once again in the flow of my dance.

The dance facilitator then said “now leave your partner and return to your own dance”…I had not even heard that we were to go into pairs, and realised that someone had come to me as I stood in my paralysed state, daring to reach out to someone who looked so alone and cut off. I looked around and it was the friend I was on the retreat with and I felt such a rush of gratitude and love for him in that moment. If I remember nothing else from the retreat it will be the feeling of his touch waking me from a place of constriction and being closed down.

 

I then took this into my morning meditation. Using the new method I had read about recently I imagined myself between two friends. Rather than trying to start by wishing myself well I connected with the feeling of wishing my friends well. For so many of us it can be easier to wish another well rather than ourself! But it starts to open our heart to that felt sense of wishing a being to be happy and well.

Once this was connected to I then returned to myself. Feeling myself between these two friends who wish me well. Starting to turn this loving attention to myself. I can be so hard on myself: feeling I will only be worthy of love when I have worked on myself, sorted out this or that defect. Become a better person. But my friends love me right now. Your friends love you right now – as you are. They may see faults, after all we all have our quirks, but they are not saying “I will love you and be a friend in a years time once you have sorted out your addiction/quirk/behaviour trait” They are your friend right now because they embrace you as they find you. Opening to this in the meditation gives a chance to let go of the narrative that I will only be worthy of love in the future, and recognise that right now I am loved as I am, which is the unconditional nature of Loving Kindness.

You may like to try this approach in your own meditation. It need only be ten minutes: five minutes of sitting imagining yourself with a friend on either side: expressing your love and care for them in your own words or using the phrases:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to you.

Then when you feel ready have a sense of your friends at your side, wishing you well. See if you can feel a sense of your friends loving you as you are right now, warts and all. Starting to wish yourself well, using your own phrases or the Loving Kindness phrases, feeling them in your heart rather than thinking them:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and exploring this in the class over the coming weeks.

If you would like to explore the Five Rhythms movement practice that is led by Bodhi who co-led the dance retreat I was on in Spain details are below: 

Click here for more info

Mindfulness or Heartfulness

Do not try to become anything.
Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
When you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
Resist nothing.
If you haven’t wept deeply,
you haven’t begun to meditate.Ajahn Chah, Thai Forest Monk (1918-1992)

I first read this quote some years ago but it was only recently that I came across this version with the final sentence: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” I was reminded of this quote on visiting the monastery where I used to live last weekend. One of the monks was talking about the importance of listening into our bodies and opening to our emotions as a source of wisdom, rather than having an intellectual understanding of our experience. Reading the first part of the quote is inspiring, but it may support the sort of view I had when I started to meditate that I needed to escape from what I was feeling, as if there was some basic true identity that could press emergency release and be blasted out in the life shuttle of Enlightenment from the mother ship of ego, suddenly floating free and blissful in the enormity of space.

What this quote above and the monk’s teaching at the weekend emphasise is that practice is about turning in and feeling fully: letting go through embracing, the core koan of our practice! A koan is a Japanese Zen teaching phrase that is seemingly contradictory, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “what moves – the flag or the wind?”. The koan is known only when the rational mind finally surrenders and stops trying to make any logical sense of it. In the same way the logical mind tends to think in black and white: reject what is not wanted, then I’ll feel good. Hold onto what makes me feel good so I feel even better.

This tendency of the mind to grasp at, or reject, thoughts about the past or the future or the present moment and to fall into a sense of an identity that seems fixed and real for the time it is there, but evaporates like a mist to be replaced by another identity and then another as the day progresses is the basis of Ajahn Chah’s teaching above: mindfulness is the art of resting into that gentle allowing and knowing that notices without attaching or rejecting. But as well as this noticing it is also a knowing that fully participates in the experience and fully feels what is there, whilst not getting lost in it or rejecting it. In this sense the awareness that arise from mindfulness practice has been described as a participant-observer, as opposed to the dissociated observer that looks on from a distance. This is an important distinction, as the tendency to associate mindfulness with looking on from a distance only adds to our separation from being fully present in our life.

This may in part be due to the use of the word mindfulness to describe this way of being. We associate mind with the brain and so think of mindfulness as looking down from our head or from a discrete intelligence that is separate from what is being observed. Perhaps it helps if we look at the Buddhist word for mind, chitta, which means both mind and heart. So we could as easily talk of heartfulness instead of mindfulness. In this practice we are learning to hold all of our experience in an open heart, that observes and feels and witnesses.

The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness was described by the Buddha as “the middle way”.  It is the middle way between the extremes of grasping and rejection, between wanting to exist forever as an identity (grasping onto what we are enjoying) and wanting not to exist (resisting an experience and wanting it to be over). Mindfulness has been described as the art of feeling an emotion without being the emotion: feeling sad without being sad, feeling happy without grasping at happiness and wanting it to last forever, but instead enjoying it as it arises and allowing it to pass as another emotion arises to be held. Or bringing compassion to a difficult emotion as it arises to be greeted by awareness at the door of perception. In this way we come fully into being alive in the present moment, rather than dwelling in thoughts about the past or anticipating the future or not wanting the present moment to be as it is.

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These thoughts about past and future often arise unwilled by conscious thought and a Harvard study found that we spend around 47% of our time is spent in distracted thinking.  This means nearly half of our waking life is spent not being present or fully awake. If we are spending half of our life caught in such unproductive thinking patterns it’s not surprising we can experience a sense of frustration, sadness and worry! It’s almost as if the thoughts are thinking themselves and we are just swept along in the flood!

From popular ideas about meditation it would be easy to think that mindfulness is about switching off – stopping these unwanted thoughts through a deliberate effort of will to silence the mind and find peace. After all if it is these thoughts that make us feel bad then surely we need to stop them to feel good? This is the ‘doing mode’ approach to the dilemma: trying to fix the problem by an act of will. The ‘being mode’ approach is to open to what is there, to hold it with curiosity, to feel into it and allow without getting swept away in the thought. As we start to meditate we may feel discouraged when, a few minutes in, we’re beset by thoughts and distraction. Then the mind starts its commentary – “this is impossible”, “I can’t stop thinking – this isn’t working”, “I’m no good at this”, “Perhaps if I go away to a monastery I’ll do it but not in my busy life”. And so we tick it off as something we tried but that didn’t work.

Whilst we may have moments of the mind being still and calm as we meditate the main value of mindfulness practice is the ability to learn to be present despite the busyness of the mind rather than mindfulness being a means of stopping thought: thus mindfulness is the ability to be present with our mind as it is, not how we think it should be. This may mean mindfully attending to the breath whilst also being aware of a busy, worried or anxious mind.

My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would often comment, the thought “I don’t want any thoughts” is simply adding another thought into the already busy mind! The paradox is that a practice intended to bring peace actually just creates another self-identity: the one wanting to be a calm meditator! And so we sit with thoughts like: “I hope I can get calm”, “when will I be peacefull”, “I was peaceful in my last sit I hope I have that experience again”……Instead through mindfulness we learn to bring non-judgemental attention to what is here right now: noticing thought but then avoiding the duality of getting pulled in to it or rejecting it. In this way mindfulness practice is more about embracing what is there and holding it in the heart of awareness. It is not a process of dissociating and rising above thoughts and feelings but of being fully present to them, to how it feels in the body to experience them and to witness how they arise, stay a while and then pass away, which may open us to a deep sense of peace that isn’t dependant on silence or absence of thoughts but that can exist within the busyness of mental activity. It’s like finding the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane when one had spent one’s life trying to stop the hurricane.

The eye of the hurricane: knowing

As you engage with this mindful presence there can be a sense of ‘knowing’ that is a gentle witnessing of what is there. This witness is not separate from what is there, but fully engaged, just as the awareness that arises whilst you pay attention to the sensations in your toes as you do the body scan is not a separate witness, but comes into being as a result of meeting the sensations. In this way we shift beyond the duality of observer and observed when there is simply a unified experience of sensation and that which knows the sensation. In the same way with thoughts, when we shift from an idea of a separate intelligence that is looking on at all these thoughts and instead know that our sense of identity is arising from witnessing the thoughts as they arise there can be a subtle sense of calm that arises. The knowing itself is calm, even if what it knows is busy and distracted thoughts.

A traditional teaching metaphor for thoughts in meditation is that they are like clouds in the sky. When we think we need to get rid of thoughts to be calm it is like the sky thinking it needs to get rid of the clouds in order to be the sky. The sky always has the nature to be clear and untouched by whatever storm is blowing through it. In the same way this capacity to know is always present, always clear, but by focusing on the clouds of thought we are like the sky that has forgotten itself and instead thinks it is the storm clouds. The sky does not need to destroy the clouds to feel its open spacious and clear nature, so in the same way we do not need to destroy thoughts to rest into our own clear, open and calm capacity to be present, to be the knowing.

I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.

The Importance of Feeling Part of a Community for Emotional Well-being

This Friday I was listening to Thought For The Day on the Today programme. It was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking and his theme really caught my interest. He referred to the work of Susan Pinker, who had visited an Italian village to explore why it had more people living over 100 years of age than anywhere else in the world. She discovered that although poor and living in harsh circumstances they lived in a close knit community where no-one was alone as family and friends where all there to offer support and contact. No-one was left alone for long. As a result of this close emotional and physical contact the body’s natural response is to release oxytocin, endorphins and neuro-peptides that support the immune system and aid recovery. In contrast isolation increases stress and reduces life expectancy.

This village in Sardinia is an example of how we lived before industrialisation, consisting of shepherds and farmers and extended families living close together. With industrialisation close knit extended family groups started atomising into isolated family units living in separate houses increasingly far apart from each other. So that now the old are no longer mixing with the young, but are put into homes, lined up in chairs like tomb stones. But, in the early stages of industrialisation people still had their community around them, people they would chat with: friends in the street or meet at discussion groups, parties and social events. In our modern post-industrial service economy technological world families now live scattered across continents and although technology has given us a means of being in touch with innumerable people many of us have little real connection with others.  It is as if we have retreated into a virtual world of connections. Our friends are icons on a screen and words typed silently from within our head, their reply taken in as silent symbols representing speech which are turned into words silently in our brain.

E.M. Forster brilliantly foretold this dystopian future in his short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which is an amazingly prescient imagining of a world where real human connection has all but died and humans only connect via a screen. Written in 1909 it imagines a world where humans have retreated to underground cities, due to the earth above being for some unspecified reason no longer being habitable. Here they live in isolated rooms, never leaving and communicating only through the technology that sustains their lives: the machine. In one quote Forster states: “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti (a lecturer and mother of the hero of the story) nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” The people who lived in the machine no longer communicated face to face but from monitor to monitor. Talking through the machine that supports their lives, her son says to her: “I want to see you not through the machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh Hush!”, said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine.”  Decades before computers existed Forster imagined the internet and a world of disconnected intellects, living isolated in their room whilst connected to many thousands: “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

The result of this world becoming a reality in our own time can be an intense sense of isolation, no matter how many hundreds of friends we have on Facebook, or followers on Instagram or Twitter, or how many watch our blog on You Tube. Or how many chats we have going on dating apps. The sense of loneliness can feel overwhelming sometimes. When we do finally meet an elusive sex date from an app it can feel so fleeting and the longing for real intimacy may only partly be satiated as they rush away without time to hold or cuddle – fearing this is a step too far into intimacy. So I find in casual sex there is often a sense of contact through the body but not from the heart. And as this need for real contact is not met, it can lead to a desperate search for it among more random contacts, as one hopes that the next one or the next will take away this sense of loneliness.

I long for the days as a teenager when a friend would just telephone me and we could connect through a conversation….and then arrange to meet, for the need for face to face meetings is all the more important for our sense of well being than verbal conversation, and for me much of my sense of dis-ease arises at times when I feel isolated and lonely. I do experience a healthy solitude: it provides space to reflect, nourish myself and have a sense of my own being. But I feel the need also to have time spent with others, for we are social animals, descended from chimps, who for most of human history have lived in small and closely knit social groups.

As much as I may enjoy casual sex dates it seems to me these need to be the iciing on the cake, the cake itself being a social network, friends and social groups. Eating too much icing just makes you sick after all! I am also exploring my antipathy to really going deeply into a committed relationship. My fear of being rejected by another man, my uncertainty as to whether I can believe that another man has the capacity to really love me. For those of us who are gay as we grew up our love interests were often unattainable, distant and most likely perceived as a threat and this can be carried over into how one perceives men as an adult. The teenage me feeling desire for another male who was both wanted and feared: the boy I looked at in the shower  after sport, whilst dreading that he might see me looking, or that the other boys might spot where I was looking and ridicule me. That early experience of sexuality being mixed with the unattainable man and the fear of having him. This seems to play out for me as an adult in living in a world of gay men who are both very sexualised and yet withdrawn from wanting to make a commitment – myself included.

Pinker adresses this in her book ‘The Village Effect’, which I have not read but have just ordered for delivery. In this, according to the info on Amazon, Pinker writes of our need for close social bonds,  and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

 

What is your village? Where is your tribe? Who forms your close social network?

Over the 12 years I’ve lived in London I have felt intensely alone at times, but I have also been lucky to meet and become part of social groups that overlap but are also distinct in what they offer. Before living in London I had an even more direct experience of living in small communities: in the monastery I had 6 years of living with a close knit network of monks and nuns and lay practitioners. We really were a village. In Northumberland there were around 8 of us living together as a community: working, socialising and meditating together as a unit. Then in Hertfordshire at Amaravati I lived in a larger network of about 30 people.

In Cambridge as a young man in my 20s I lived and worked in a community of about 40 men and women, living in a community house with 8 other men and sharing my room with a close friend. The idea then was very much to go beyond personal ownership of space and possessions so sharing a room was both practical as it meant a small terrace house could hold twice as many people. But it was also with the intent of letting go of personal ownership of things. It did create a really close network and with my room mate, which was never a sexual relationship, I experienced a really close bond as we talked about life and practice at night before falling asleep. In the morning we would all meditate together, as we did in the monastery. Then in the evening one of us would leave work early (we all worked in the same warehouse, importing  and distributing ethnic gifts) . That person would cook a vegan meal and we would sit at a table together talking and chatting as we shared the meal.

On leaving the monastery and coming to London 12 years ago I looked for something like this. At first going into Soho and ‘the scene’ I hoped to be embraced by a big gay family. Being skinny, poorly dressed, with a bad hair style and so shy any attempt to dance looked like cold spaghetti tangling itself into a knot I found little solace in the clubs and bars. In fact I learnt what it is like to be invisible. The cool gay elite treating me like the cool boys at school had treated the unwanted and unwelcome gay boys we once all were.

 

 

Finding My Tribes

Then I started to find my tribes. Tribes can be an emotive word, so to clarify by tribe I do not mean a group that defines itself in opposition to another group, but a place of connection, shared interests and mutual care and support.  My discovering my tribes in London started with meeting Bodhi and going to Five Rhythms Movement Meditation. I was introduced to this in the monastery by a close friend and we used to whirl around in our robes during the Family Camp. Going to Five Rhythms was in part the one connection I still had with the monastery, along with my daily meditation practice. At first going to what I saw as a dance group was an experience of absolute fear. Tangled spaghetti trying to dance is not a pleasant experience!! But slowly I realised that it was a space where I could go and move and not be judged. A space where I could move with the sense of stuckness and explore this. In fact I realised it was not dance, it was a movement practice. When I let go of the idea of trying to dance and instead allowed myself to move with the rhythm of the music and my own heart then I could let go into the inner rhythm of my own body’s response to the music and I’ve found this intensely liberating. I’ve also met a group of men and women with whom I enjoy spending Friday evenings, both at the session and afterwards at the meal many of us go on to share together. This led to going on a Summer retreat last year in Greece, led by Bodhi and another teacher called Alex. It was an amazing experience of connection, and I gained much deeper friendships from that which have lasted since and nourish me to this day.

Later on I met Darren, first as a life coach, but this led on to participating in The Quest. I found this to be a powerful experience of exploring issues relating to my childhood and the buried experiences and emotions of growing up gay. This was a one off course, but with some follow up events and my main sense of expanding my tribe here was to make a deeper connection with Darren and to move from him being a life coach whom I saw professionally to a heart friend and brother along with Bodhi.

More recently I have gone to two of the  Loving Men retreats, the New Year celebration in Wales for gay, bi and trans men. This has been a fantastic space to explore living in a community that we rarely create for ourselves in the busyness of the large urban centres we inhabit. It is a space where what is possible as a community of men becomes apparent: living from the heart, softening, opening to an ease of connection and expression of  affection for our friends when we are no longer afraid of what others will think if they see us holding another man’s hand or leaning against a friend’s chest as we listen to a talk or watch a show.

Last year I went to the Queer Spirit Festival organised by the Radical Fairies of Albion. I became friends with Shokti years ago, who is very involved with the Fairies, and had fluttered around the edge of Fairy gatherings without ever fully landing. But last Summer I did by attending the Queer Spirit Festival in Wiltshire and it was such a magical experience. A place inviting those present to be fully self-expressed, to let go of fear and shame and to allow life to be fun and playful and connected. I’m really looking forward to the next Festival which is taking place in July, details of which are below in the community notice board section. Since last Summer I’ve started going to more Fairy events and last night was at the full moon drum circle in Vauxhall, which was an amazing experience. It was a chance to reconnect with friends I know through the Fairies, to move with the rhythm of the drums and be aligned to the rhythms of nature through being conscious of the moon cycle as I used to be in the monastery, where our rest days fell on new, full and quarter moons.

When I was at Loving Men this New Year, I met Phoebus who runs a fortnightly discussion circle called Open Connections and  since then have been attending these regularly. They provide a space where it is possible to explore through discussion issues relating to sex and relationships. I’ve really enjoyed connecting again to the sort of open space for discussion I used to have when living in my first Buddhist group where I used to go on regular retreats and have heart circles with other practitioners. To explore this further I took up the opportunity of being in a closed group for 10 weeks, which I am still in the midst of, having two more sessions to go. Meeting with three other men with Phoebus facilitating, this has been an incredible space to open to the vulnerability of having the conversations it is so easy to avoid. A space to be honest, vulnerable, connected. A space to express anger and annoyance and have it held. A space to see the beauty of another gay man who initially annoyed the hell out of me, but my heart warming to him as we melted the hard armour of our egos in the furnace of honest disclosure.

And of course there is the Monday mindfulness group! Which I set up with the intention of creating a social space where gay, bi and trans men could meet and socialise in a relaxed space away form the pressures and demands of clubs and bars. Through this I have met other heart friends, without whom my life would feel very empty and cold. And it has been a delight to hold a space which enable other gay/bi/ trans men to meet and make their own connections. There have now been 1000 people come to the class over the 7 years it has run. Each week around 260 men read these emails, so as you read this you are connected, in a subtle way, to all of them.

Growing out of these connections I am now working on a weekend workshop with a friend I met at the group which will combine mindfulness practice with therapeutic insights specifically addressing issues of loneliness and isolation which may then give rise to symptoms that are treated as an illness or addiction rather than held as something needing compassion and self-care. This will be available once we have got it finalised. I also plan to run more week long retreats where we can start to go away together of yoga and mindfulness retreats and build our own sense of a closer community, as well as having our social events here in London.

I am also working on an idea for a group where we explore more connection and intimacy for those who are happy with touch and sensual contact. In this I’ll bring in the work I’ve done in exploring gay tantra and Eros through Andy Saich’s excellent sensual massage workshops and I’m looking forward to attending a workshop on Exploring Intimate Touch he has helped to facilitate, taking place in July, to continue this exploration of connecting more deeply with myself and Eros energy. This new group will also draw on my connection with Kai Helmich who has really introduced me to the power of somatic body work for healing and who has challenged me to bring this into the work that I do.

Through attending all of these I now have a feeling of being held. I have a network of friends, some of whom I met in these groups and who I see there, others who are outside of these groups. The feeling of having a village is certainly there as people who goto these groups overlap so I meet and recognise people as I move from one group to another, as well as meeting people who are unique to each group.

These may not be what will form your Village. But this is an invitation for you to consider what is your village? And if you do not have one how might you explore these and other groups to get more of a physical connection to others, rather than the virtual connection of apps and social media.

To read The Machine Stops click here

Full details of the groups mentioned above and others that I know but may not have attended are below.

For a full list of sports, social  and recreational groups in London, compiled by GMFA click here  This  list is a few years old now so may be out of date in parts.

 

Marrying the findings of the new field of social neuroscience together with gripping human stories, award-winning author and psychologist Susan Pinker explores the impact of face-to-face contact from cradle to grave, from city to Sardinian mountain village, from classroom to workplace, from love to marriage to divorce. Her results are enlightening and enlivening, and they challenge our assumptions.
Most of us have left the literal village behind, and don’t want to give up our new technologies to go back there. But, as Pinker writes so compellingly, we need close social bonds and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

To buy click here

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