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Posts tagged ‘happiness’

The Two Arrows: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

Over the last month I’ve had a number of experiences that have given rise to feelings of dejection and sadness. And as this drama in the heart-mind has played itself out on the stage of myself I’m reminded to return to a teaching I became familiar with last year, the two arrows.

There’s a Buddhist saying: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. This slightly enigmatic phrase is explored more in the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows where the Buddha compared the experience of pain to being struck by an arrow:  it is happening, it’s real and it hurts. But how do we then respond to this first arrow? If I respond to the initial stimulus of my upset by worrying, wondering what’s wrong with me for it to have happened, blaming myself for falling into habitual patterns or not doing more to act in a ‘better’, wiser, way or getting angry and irate I fire a second arrow.

So now I have the initial pain of not being able to date someone I want to, or not being invited to an interview for a job I applied for (and am currently working in, but had to tender for…adding to the sense of failure) If I then add the secondary pain of telling myself off, putting myself down or finding fault with myself, feeling worried about the furture, anxious about what will happen…..I then fire the second arrow. I have no control over the first arrow. As the saying goes “shit happens”, but I do have control over the second arrow, for that is what I create as a response in my heart-mind to the finial painful stimulus.

This tendency to self-blame seems to be rooted in low self esteem, a self-desarigin mind sate that is ever ready to find evidence of me being a useless and flawed human being, a “waste of space” as my mother would sometimes say to me as a child. Perhaps the child started to believe that if I am waste of space then perhaps I do not deserve to exist or take up space? And an unconscious pattern of thinking about myself gets created which is triggered when events seem to prove it true. Another familiar scolding was that I “did not have the brains I was born with”, so it’s not surprising that my inner critic would delight in using this as one of it’s recurrent themes: you’re so stupid, look at the mess you made of that, see I knew you couldn’t do it.

This isn’t to then look to blame my mother or whoever we hold responsible for our wounds – that would be firing another arrow, getting angry with a person who no longer exists – my mother is still alive, but the woman who was my mother in the 1970s is simply an idea now, a memory in my mind, echoing in this present moment as habit patterns of thinking that have created a neural patterning in my brand to respond in certain ways. The significance of the two arrow teaching is that in a pre- scientific age with awareness of the brain an dits structure, the Buddha is encouraging us to engage in a neural restructuring by choosing to hold our experience of the initial pain without going into the automatic pathways of resting to it. For me its to go into a sense of powerless surrender and silent anger. That’s how i was a child and it’s given with to my patterns as an adult. Other may have learnt to get angry, so will respond with rage to the first arrow. We all have our patterns. But by coming back to the primary pain, the first arrow, we have a chance to open to an experience of empathy and compassion for ourselves, for our suffering and to recognise that it will pass and is a temporary experience not something that defines who we are.

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The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain and she uses this teaching of the two arrows as the means to finding a deeper level of ease and patient forbearance when confronted by pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain.She gives a beautiful summary of her approach which I’ve found very helpful in my own experience of working with pain:

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In the chart below Birch shows how by responding to the primary pain with resistance we then fire the second arrow which gives rise to secondary suffering. This secondary suffering may take the form of ‘blocking’, where we try to deny that there is any pain, or ‘drowning’, where we are overwhelmed by it.

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How then do I  stay with the first pain and not shoot the second arrow? First, I acknowledge that I am firing the second arrow, that this is something I am doing in response to the initial stimuli. Then And then I turn to the first arrow itself. I can feel in and ask myself am I blocking or drowning?  In another teaching the Buddha talks of a man who has been shot by a poisoned arrow who will not have it removed util a whole list of questions about the arrow and who shot it have been answered  – who shot it, where did he come from, was he a noble, whats it made of, what feathers were used on the shaft etc. Clearly in this case the mad wold just want it removed. But when I am shot by the arrow of suffering how often I try to work it all out what it means, why, what it says about me, what was it’s cause?

As I mentioned earlier there may be causes from childhood for how I think now.  But I am here now, and my awareness of these conditioning factors point not at a never ending speculation about why, but the need to hold this present moment with compassion and patience. The first arrow is pulled out when instead of pushing it further into the wound, I bring kind attention to the pain through a gentle, compassionate holding of my sense of upset and disappointment. Holding the hope of the child for love rather than telling him he was a fool to expect anyone to want him or be available. Perhaps being abandoned by my father at birth made that wound, but right now I can let that wound fest, or apply the healing balm of self-care through acknowledge that hurts, that I feel lonely, and recognising that this is not just my experience but it is what I share with all humans.

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Surfing the Waves of Suffering

I woke up today feeling sad and scared. I’m waiting for a few things to become clear which is acting as a reminder of how life is uncertain and unpredictable. For the last year I have been teaching mindfulness courses at a London council to their staff. The 8 week courses have gone well and I have received constantly good feedback from participants. But there is a requirement that any ongoing work at the council has to go out to competitive tender so I had to submit my application along with others for the interviewing process……..The interviews took place yesterday and I was not invited.

This brings up the feeling of having failed – which objectively, as the task was to be invited to an interview, I have – but then this becomes a feeling in my gut that I am a failure. I feel slightly sick right now. And that belief is not true but it is corrosive. If I just stay with the objective fact: I submitted an application, I was not invited to an interview. I can then reflect on what is needed to make any future submission better able to communicate my skills and abilities in a way that an admin team would consider interviewing me.

I like the way the Buddha describes our human experience: life is like traveling in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. As comfortable as you try to get on the journey there is an unexpected jolt and a shudder at irregular intervals to throw it all into confusion.

I’m back where I was a year ago in terms of wondering where I shall find work and income. But I have a years experience of teaching and feel a confidence in myself I did not a year ago. As well as uncertainty about work other life patterns are presenting themselves in different arenas, especially dating and relationships. Jung said “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It feels as if some things are rising into consciousness now through various life situations. And it’s hard to sit with that, but I know it is needed or these patterns of behaviour and thinking/feeling will just keep playing out on the stage of myself, with me as the “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”…….I just hope that, unlike Macbeth, I do not finish my life believing that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As I sat in meditation this morning all I could feel at first was fear. And then sadness. Then I dropped into, or was embraced by, a deeper stillness that was calm and nourishing. But held within that gentle embrace was a hard fist of fear in my belly/solar plexus. Forty minutes of breathing into that and letting it be has opened it, but only so that I now feel it more fully. I find these feelings are like waves, and right now it feels like a huge one is rolling over me. It needs to be felt. And I know it will pass. But I hope to learn from it. But it’s so hard to welcome something that feels so hard to be with. However, I do believe Rumi when he invites us to “stand at the door laughing” and to welcome whatever difficulties arise as a guest to be treated honourably – to be held in awareness without judgement and allowed to be rather than trying to destroy the unwanted emotions as they come knocking at the door asking to be let in.

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I’m reminded to reflect on how dependant we all are on each other, how we are all part of this interconnected web of interactions. It’s this teaching of interconnectedness that drew me to Buddhism. The teaching that we are not islands unto ourselves, but one point in an interconnected matrix. My actions impact on others, whilst the decisions of others reverberate through the matrix and impact on me. One month I have a seemingly secure employment, circumstances change, staff change and a new agenda comes in and that security evaporates like mist.

I’m just grateful for my meditation practice, it is the one place where I can drop into an experience of freedom and joy that does not depend on anything from outside to create or sustain it. And thank you to friends who offer so much kindness and support. I was touched by the responses yesterday and to a message I sent out recently to the meditation group when people shared their own experiences. It reminds me that this is what unites us – living in a world that is uncertain, unsure and full of insecurity. May we all find our way to the bliss of freedom from suffering.

How to be Happy

I sometimes talk about Oxytocin in the class and the various activities we can engage with to produce it. Known as the love hormone or cuddle chemical it is quite self suggestive for how it is primarily produced – touch, loving contact, sex, and a deep feeling of connection to another.  It can also come from self touch, giving yourself a massage to have a sense of loving contact, given that we don’t always have others around who will give us a hug! I was thinking about this during the week as I have to apply a moisturiser after showering due to dermatitis. I can easily see this as a task to be got through before I can on with the day. But instead, this week I’ve seen it as an opportunity to slow down and give some affection to my body, having a sense of care as I apply it and enjoying the experience as a five minute massage rather than a chore.  What parts of your day do you rush through that might be more nourishing? Could your morning shower be a time to slow down and enjoy the touch of water and feel of applying the soap? Could you take longer to enjoy your first cup of tea or coffee rather than gulp it down and get on with work?

How might you nourish yourself through becoming more present in the everyday activities you already perform?

Enjoy the everyday: Perhaps your walk to to work could become a time for quiet reflection. I goto a school twice a week to volunteer as a reading assistant. I have two routes to go from the station to the school.  One is slightly longer and goes through Battersea park, whilst the other is along a main road. In the morning I need to get to the school directly so walk along the road, but after the session I have a choice.  Its been interesting to see how often my mind is in busy mode wanting to get straight home to get on with a task. But taking the extra ten minutes to walk through the park has such an impact on my sense of well-being and happiness it is worth being ten minutes latter home! One person I know found he could enjoy hanging his washing out on the line rather than see it as a chore…and in doing so nourished himself through being more open to his senses – the smell of fresh laundry, the feel of the sun on his skin, the sound of birds singing….

This principe of how we view our time is outlined in a story I read: a Buddhist teacher was collected by his disciple at an airport. The disciple asked if he wanted to go the fast or scenic route home. The teacher replied “fast”. On arriving at the home where they were staying the dispel rushed in to get on with arrangements. The teacher stopped him and asked “what are we going to do to enjoy the time we just saved?” How much of our life is spent hurrying taking the fast route, but never stopping to enjoy the time we have saved!!

Kindness Diary: Kindness has been found to be an excellent way of boosting oxytocin and a sense of well-being.  In one study a group of women were asked to write down every act of kindness they performed each day for a week.  But the end of the week their answers to a stress test showed they were 50% less stressed than at the start of the week. You don’t need to deliberately think of kind acts to perform, but simply bring conscious awareness to the kind acts you are already performing but overlook.

Gratitude diary: write down one or more things you feel grateful for from the day.  It can be very simple things, but noting them starts to orientate the mind to a sense of being nourished rather than a sense of lack.

Find exercise you enjoy: Exercise releases endorphins….but only if you have enjoyed it and felt it was effective.  Grinding out a few laps of the park or dragging yourself to the gym won’t release endorphins.  But doing it because you enjoy it or finding an activity you enjoy  will.

Volunteer: I’m volunteering twice a week as a reading assistant in a school. I work with the same three children over one year, seeing them each for 1/2 an hour twice a week. It’s a delight to see how they are engaging with the reading and enjoying the time we spend together.  And I am feeling happier as a result. Volunteering has been found to boost well-being and happiness. We are social beings and there is something powerful in knowing you are doing something for the well being of the community of which you are a part, doing it from your heart rather than for any financial benefit.

Meditate: the Loving Kindness practice will have an impact on your sense of well being if done regularly. The mind does not distinguish between what is happening and thoughts of an event.  Sitting and wishing a friend well and feeling happy for them will be as if you are with them and enjoying their company. The heart will feel warm and beneficial hormones will be produced in the brain associated with feelings of happiness and love. Whilst the mindfulness practice will help the body to regulate itself and switch off the stress mode of fight/flight or freeze and go into the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a highly beneficial state, where the body can rest, repair and rejuvenate. All it takes is ten minutes a day to start to have the life enhancing benefits of a daily meditation practice.

What’s yours? As well as these you may have other activities that nourish you and make you happy – a hobby, reading, gardening, mountain climbing, telephoning a friend, painting…..what activities can you think of that you might incorporate more into your life to bring a greater sense of well being and joy? How would you like to start your year?

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The Power Of Posture To Change How You Feel

This week we continue with the theme of self-love from the perspective of how to step into a deeper feeling of self worth through how we hold our body. When I first started running the classes over 7 years ago I gave out a handout of the cartoon below. It was the first time that I had seen anything relating to how posture affects mood, but it made me think how true it was. Good old Charlie Brown!

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Around the same time I saw this illustration showing how a chimpanzee changes its posture as it goes from feeling sad to dejected. And I was struck by how as humans we have the same tendency to close down our body and shrink into a smaller space as we get sad or feel powerless.

 

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A few years latter I watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the power of posture to change how you feel and finally these different elements all came together in her exploration of power poses and how they shift our sense of ourselves and even effect our body’s chemistry.

What she observed was that when feeling unconfident or powerless we tend to adopt the restricted posture shown above by the Chimps. In contrast when we feel elated or successful we adopt an open and expanded posture. Interestingly people who had been blind from birth and had never seen an athlete extend their arms out in victory do the same when they win a race. Amy suggests this seems to relate to our primate heritage, where those higher up in the power order take more space in the way they hold their body while those lower down or who feel powerless will signal this by making themselves small.

 

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In her talk, which is included below, Amy Cuddy talks about her motto “fake it till you make it”. She found that by adopting a high power posture it changed how she felt and how others perceived her. She taught this to her students who were thinking of dropping out of the course due to low self-esteem – telling them to start adopting postures that expressed confidence, even if they did not feel it. They then started to feel more confident in class.

There is a place for being fully present to the feeling of fear before giving a talk. Breathing into that and holding it. But if I were to then give the presentation holding myself small it would only add to the feeling of not being good enough. In contrast taking a breath, standing tall and with an open chest I already feel a little more able to give the presentation.

Moving from “not enough” to “Enough”

As I was reading ‘I love Me’ by David Hamilton this week he refers to Amy Cuddy’s work and how he had used it himself. He refers to the shift from the feeling that you’re “not enough” to one of feeling “I’m enough” and discusses what can happen when you pretend to be “enough”, even if you are not feeling it and how this can change the chemistry in the body through its impact on the nervous system, muscles and testosterone.

He gives an example from his own life. One Friday he was teaching maths to a class of students who had all been expelled from their schools. In the first lesson they destroyed him. They told him they were not interested in fractions and made it clear what they thought of him. Driving back to his school he stopped the car and cried it was so painful. He wanted nothing other than to get out of ever teaching the class again. But the head of department was away and he could not talk to her until Monday. A colleague challenged him, knowing he was writing a self-help book. The colleague suggested he see if he could use the methods he was exploring to change how he was in the class. Over the weekend he stood in power poses, imagined himself talking with confidence and authority to the class and used some self affirming affirmations.

On the Monday he went in to the class and there was a shift.  He held their interest and started talking about his work as a scientist. They became fascinated and started asking questions, saying it was ‘crazy shit’. He then made a deal that they could have 20 minutes of ‘crazy shit’ science if they had focused on the maths for the rest of the lesson. He was now confident and in command. By the end of the course they all passed with an A grade.

This might be an extreme example, but we can all use this when going for an interview, or on entering a situation we find challenging. What Amy Cuddy discovered through her research was that by holding a high power pose for two minutes it increased the amount of testosterone in the body, boosting the feeling of confidence, and reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, spending two minutes somewhere private holding a power pose before going in to the challenging meeting, interview or situation may help to change how we feel as we enter it. As David Hamilton observes, Wonder Woman gives us a great example of a power pose, standing with her hands on her hips! Or it could be standing with arms up as if we had just won a race or even making the Usain Bolt pose. I was talking to my flat mate about this earlier and made the pose (for the first time ever)  and was amazed at how good I felt!

LONDON, ENGLAND AUGUST 5, 2012-Jamaica's Usain Bolt strikes a pose after winning the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

LONDON, ENGLAND AUGUST 5, 2012-Jamaica’s Usain Bolt strikes a pose after winning the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Even smiling will alter your mood.  As you meditate allow yourself to have a relaxed and gentle smile and just notice the effect!

None of this is intended to deny that we feel sad and in pain at times and next week I’ll be looking at how we can hold this.  But the Buddha taught that we are not a fixed self, that all that we experience arises upon conditions and by changing those conditions we change. So if we have got into a habit of being like Charlie Brown and facing the world with shoulders slumped, perhaps that helps to maintain that mood and way of being in the world. By changing our posture we are saying to our body that things are ok, that we can shift to a more confident mood and after a while of ‘faking it’ we may actually start to inhabit that way of being and it becomes our new reality.

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High Power Poses v Low Power Poses 

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In “I love Me’ David Hamilton makes the point that we were not born with low self esteem, we learnt it. Anything that has been learnt, can be unlearnt. We were not born feeling more comfortable taking certain postures. We have learnt to feel more comfortable holding our body in this way. From looking at the illustration above which do you recognise as your habitual ways of standing and sitting? And how does it feel to take on the opposite?

To shift from a low power posture to a high power posture may feel incredibly uncomfortable.  When I did it it was as if everything in me was saying you don’t deserve to stand like this, this is not who you are. The autopilot of personality was wanting to be left to present itself to the world as it had learnt to feel comfortable. But that came with a script of: “I am nothing, I don’t matter, who will listen to me…….” and to live form that script was too painful. It still is as I’ve not entirely learnt to inhabit a place of open potential rather than scripted limitation. But when I feel myself closing down, I open my body up and feel the difference. I invite you to play with this yourself. And if you notice you hold high power poses naturally, try holding a low power one for a few minutes, just to get a feel of the contrast and truly appreciate the way you have learnt to  hold yourself – but know how others are feeling who lack that confidence so that you may use your strength to empower others to find their own confidence rather than intimidate them.

If this has interested you there is a much more detailed discription of it in the 20 minute video below:

Picking more daisies

If I had my life to live over again,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax.
I’d limber up.
I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances,
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would, perhaps, have more actual troubles but fewer imaginary ones.
you see, I’m one of those people who was sensible and sane,
hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments.
If I had to do it over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else- just moments,
one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.
I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute.
If I could do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had to live my life over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances,
I would ride more merry-go-rounds,
I would pick more daisies.

 

When asked “How would you have lived your life differently if you had a chance?” Nadine Stair, an 85-year-old woman, from Louisville, Kentucky, provided these poetic words as her response. It can be so easy to be caught up in the busyness of our lives that we loose that quality we all had as children of being able to stop and be fascinated by the world around us.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring opening more to this playful attitude since I’ve met someone who is very open to playing and its encouraging me to enjoy this as part of the friendship.  We met first to have coffee and dinner on the SouthBank and we had been chatting about bringing in the playfulness from childhood into our adult lives. But after dinner it was time to experience it rather than talk about it. We started by playing hide and seek and then tag – running after each other on the terrace under the Royal Festival Hall.  It was such a release to be able to play again. At one point we were passing an interactive sculpture that was one of a number along the South Bank – it was shaped like a slide but without steps. I saw it as a slide so climbed up and slid down.  Then my friend did as well.  Then a young woman saw us and ran over to join in and her friends helped her get up. A man who was with her looked over and laughed but said “she’s not related” – she shook her head and said “yes we are, he’s my brother”. And in that little interaction there was so much.  The critical inner voice that tells us to stop expressing our spontaneity. The denial of the playful self, in order to conform and fit in. And also how when one person plays or is more free it encourages that freedom of heart in others.

It also made me realise how important it is to connect out to others who encourage whatever it is in us that feels alive and vibrant. To have that flame fanned by the fire in another heart.

A few days latter I was on the South Bank again but in the day, and as I watched the sculpture again all of the children who went past it got their parent to lift them up so they could slide down, but none of the adults did!

One of the things I’m starting to learn is that I’m an extrovert whose coming out of hiding after I spent a lot of my life thinking I was introverted! So I enjoy doing these things and don’t worry about being seen. For true introverts running around on the South Bank will not be your idea of play and fun! But however we express it – whether at home or in public, it’s a fascinating experience to let go and allow a more carefree expression of that energy.

.Rather than waiting until the end of our lives to look aback an wish we had not cared so much about what others think, how could you start now “picking more daisies”?

Remembering to play!

We all did it at one time, and for many of us it is something we have grown out of. This week I’ve been chatting with a friend about play and he’s been talking about how he still likes to play hide and seek if he can find anyone who will play with him! It made me think of how much I miss that easy playfulness of childhood. As a gay man with no young relatives I hadn’t been able to explore play as an adult but over the last year I’ve volunteered with Beanstalk as a reading assistant in a school, meeting with three children twice a week for half an hour each. At the end of each session we would play a game, this was part of the Beanstalk approach, to make reading associated with fun. It has been great to experience that playful energy again. In one session we played tag and the fun of running around the playground and trying to avoid getting tagged was so refreshing! What was so lovely was to see how ready the children were to drop  into play mode.  As soon as I said reading was over and it was time for a game they would jump up and be asking what we would play.

I found it so easy to withdraw into seriousness and into myself as a teenager. Games suddenly meant playing football which terrified me or having to engage with the other boys which felt a threat. Even aged 10 and under I preferred to join the girls at break and play skipping rope games. I even took a doll in once but soon discovered that was a mistake!

One boyfriend of mine used to like to play at hiding when I came in and jumping out to surprise me.  It was such a lovely spontaneous and joyful way of being together, and as adults we perhaps need to have the trust of a close relationship to once again feel permission to play.

When did you stop playing? Or do you still feel able to connect with this child like playfulness? Where can you go to let yourself play? When I googled ‘adults playful’ mostly what came up was references to tantric sex! It’s telling that for many the notion of playfulness as adults is only linked to sex. And as fun as that can be what about that playfulness we felt as children that was about exploring, letting go into the moment and feeling joy?

 

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As part of the theme of falling in love with yourself, how about considering how you used to like to play and how you might reconnect with this energy now as an adult? My play used to be solitary – as an only child I had to entertain myself.  It was using playing cards to make huge card towers and temple complexes on the sitting room floor, or running around the house with a lego hand held communicator imagining that I was the commander of a space ship that was under attack. When my cousins visited we would play out scenes from Dr Who until Paul refused anymore as he was always the monster and his sister Nicola was always the beautiful assistant to my Dr Who! So there was a mix of quiet, focused and still play in the building of card temples, and energy and vitality in chasing monsters! I can see these different energies as I look at these photos of myself as a child. As well as an early tendency to enjoy getting dressed up in hats!

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I remember when play started to change, aged 10.  A friend came over and I had my lego town laid out ready to play a game. He looked at it and said it was for children and so I ended up playing alone as he sulked. I still wanted to be able to enjoy my lego town, but this made me think for the first time that perhaps it was time to stop playing with it and started a process of loosing touch with this type of childhood play, where my own imagination created the game.

As an adult how do I still connect with this? The stillness and focus is there in my meditation. But I’ve tended to neglect the more boisterous play and I don’t do anything the is about creating an imaginative senario. Five Rhythms dance on a Friday night is giving me a way back to feeling the vitality and energy of play, and as it is interactive there is a chance to connect out to others in the dance in ways that are playful and boisterous.

I also like to bring some of this into my friendships but there is space for more!

How do you connect with your playfulness? Where does it show up in your life and where could you make more space for it?

Opening to Joy – The Path to Awakening

Buddhism is often accused of being pessimistic due to the focus on suffering as the entry to the path of self knowing. It´s cettainly true that what attacted me at the beguining was this acknowlegement that there was suffering. And for a long time that was my focus – how to be free from suffering through the freedom of Enlightnement. But in doing this I forgot what the Buddha also taught, which was that joy is here right now when we relax into the present moment. This weekend I am visiting a Cuban friend who lives in Hamburg and on the flight over was reading Thich Nhat Hahh´s book Breathe You Are Alive which is a reflection of the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness. In this the Buddh talks about how as we bring our attetion to the body, feelings and thoughts and attend to the experience of the breath in our body we open to a deep joy. It is this joy that then supports the arising of insight and wisdom.

As I sit here using my friend´s computer there is Cuban music playing as he dances whilst he cooks. Listening to the music there is a feeling of joy that is uplifitng. And I´m struck that it was this quality that the Buddha spoke of as being part of the path to awakening. Not serious, introspective and severe reflection – but a lightening and opening through joy, bliss and rapture.

When I was ordained into the monastic tradition my name was Bodhinando, which translates as The Bliss of Awakening. There wasn´t much bliss in the person I was at that time! I was intense, serious and felt little joy. And I took the name as being a pointer and a challenge from my Abbot. That what needed to open in me was a heart full of  joy and bliss as exemplified by the founder of the lineage I was training in, Ajahn Chah.

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

How to rest into this state? One approach is exemplified in the teaching of opening to difficult emotions with a sense of curiosity. So often I can get lost in fighting these or looking for a way of escaping them. The mindfulness approach I learnt in the monastery was a patient allowing, a turning towards what is difficult, feeling it and knowing it. As Ajahan Sumedho, my Abbot, used to say “that which knows sadness is not sad”. Awareness of an emotion is simply awareness – it is not the emotion. It is like the sky knowing the clouds – it holds them, sees them for what they are but is never itself a cloud. This approach was highlighted by the being with difficulty meditation I learnt to teach as part of the 8 week MBCT course and a method of turning towards the difficult emotions I read in The Happiness Trap, an introduction to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: to accept what is out of your personal control, while committing to action that will improve your quality of life) by Dr Russ Harris. In this he has a detailed meditation on how to turn towards difficulty by feeling it as the sensations in your body rather than as a thought, and then breathing into those sensations.

To listen to a version of this click here

The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be.  In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.

Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know.  We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.

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Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance

This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and  emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being.  As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices for healing that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience and may find a peace that was never touched by the illness that can then nourish one in the suffering of physical pain.

The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now can be held. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff Foster gives you a feeling for this approach.

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