Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘love’

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.

.

.

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.

How Do We Choose The People We Fall In Love With?

This New Year I went to Loving Men in Wales. I was looking forward to my second visit there and the opportunity to socialise and enjoy the company of around 80 gay men, attending workshops and activities over the few days of the retreat. Being single there was also curiosity about who would be there and if romance and dating might be possible. I’ve started to realise that I am a total romantic and believe in the notion of love at first sight so it wasn’t surprising that early on the first day on seeing a man there whom I was intrigued by and attracted to I was keen to start talking with him. Over the rest of the day we got on pretty well and after a dance in one workshop and a few cuddles and intimate chats my romantic heart had already flown high on the excitement of first meetings, and in my heart he was my next boyfriend, if not future husband!

Being a Romantic has its dangers though, most notably this tendency to open quickly to another in the hope they will be ‘the one’ rather than taking time to get to know them or see if they really are available. So when he told me at the end of the day that he was already dating, and that although we were both living in London this was not the start of anything other than a friendship, the reality came crashing in on my fledgling hopes, breaking their tender wings, sending them falling to the ground.

As we chatted about it I commented that this was like Groundhog day, for the same thing had happened last year, when I had seen and fallen for a man who then turned out to be unavailable as he too was dating – although I didn’t find that out until I returned to London. The man I met this year commented on this, saying how it was interesting that over the two years I had been drawn to men who were unavailable both times – out of 80 men! Not only had I chosen them but there was almost a wish to then stay in the sweetly familiar place of loss, longing and melancholy that this then aroused in the days, weeks and even months after the meeting. The man I met this year even challenged me by saying that if he were available I would be the one to run, and there is truth in this, as I focus on the unavailable man with longing but as soon as someone is available it feels unfamiliar and overwhelming and I can have a wish to run away.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members”

It’s almost as if I have the attitude expressed by Groucho Marx in his letter of resignation to the Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members” but apply it to relationships: I don’t want someone who wants me but will try with all my might to get in with someone who does not want me. It’s as if I see the person who wants me as a fool for offering love to such an unworthy object as myself, whereas the one who is aloof and withdrawn is immediately desirable as they confirm my own inner belief that I am unworthy, so they must be a good judge of character and desirable!

By being absent the unattainable man gives me the familiar feeling of longing that I had for my father, who was never there, and just as I hoped as a child that if I were to be good enough my father  might want me again, so I hope now that if I show myself to be patient, generous and attentive enough the unavailable man will do what my father never did: return to me and want me. With this hope lies the longing for the deep pain of rejection by the father to be taken away by his replacement figure: the unattainable love interest.

Perhaps there’s even the hope that if I can get the unavailable person to love me then I may not actually be so bad after all. But in contrast someone who is available for love, who sees my qualities and offers love doesn’t feel familiar and does not fit any pattern of relationship that means anything to me. It’s as if those of us with low self esteem have internalised the thought that only those who treat us as badly as we think of ourselves truly see us. While those who treat us well are seen as fools, or dull, or boring, or are just not seen and thus they can’t possibly be worthy of consideration as partners as they so clearly do not see us, at least according to our perceptions of how we are.

 

How we choose the People we Fall in Love With?

 
This experience at New Year has started a process of reflection this year, combining therapy, mindfulness practice and self reflection.  As part of exploring this theme I came across this fascinating School For Life video on how we choose the people we fall in love with, from which all of the images in this weeks email are taken. The video describe how as a culture we have shifted from a time of arranged marriages and alliances to the notion made popular in the19th Century of Romantic love: the belief our hearts will guide us to our one true soul mate. Unfortunately Romantic love does not necessarily lead to greater happiness, and may result in more pain as ‘the one’ turns out to be not so ideal: having an affair, rejecting us sexually, becoming no longer attractive…..

Why is this? As the video explains, it is rooted in how we have learnt to recognise love. As a child the way our parents or those who matter to us relate to us creates a template of what love is, and how we recognise love from others.  It is as if we start with a clean window but over the years it gets cracked and dirty or overgrown with ivy and weeds until the way we look out at the world is determined by what we can see through the window, which is not actually how the world is but is how we see it through the distortions of the window. Hence we fall in love with others who give us a familiar feeling of how it is to be loved, and care for us in familiar ways and this may not be what is best for us or even what will make us happy. We may overlook the nice guy, seeing him as boring, whilst being attracted to the man who will ignore us and make us feel unvalued. The example in the video is of a little girl ignored by her father who goes on to be attracted to men who ignore her as her experience of being loved is of a man who is self-centred and leaves her on the edge of his attention. In this way we do not fall in love with those who are good for us, but who care for us in familiar ways.

 

Not only do we feel attraction to the people who love us in familiar ways, we may overlook those who would be truly good companions just because they do not feel familiar or even feel too right…..it is too easy to get their attention, they seem ‘too keen’, which is our way of justifying ignoring them when in fact it may just be they are emotionally well balanced and are giving us an unfamiliar experience of being seen as worthy of attention and love. If we have low self esteem, such people showing us approval and love may seem a little too right, or feel a little too unfamiliar to seem right, and we reject them as potential partners.

 

 

This self awareness does not mean we then fall into a pit of despair, blaming our parents for having messed up our chances for love and fulfilment. As a conscious adult we can chose how to investigate this dynamic and once seen clearly make conscious choices about how we will relate to these old patterns of how it feels familiar to be loved. There is even an opportunity for compassion as we bring to an end what may have been generations of family habit patterns of relating to loved ones by becoming fully conscious of what has been passed on to us, which was passed on to our parents by their parents from their parents.

One way is in therapy. I had an experience of this recently, when I went to my therapy session after missing the preceding one due to confusing the time and being an hour late. As I approached the session after the one I had missed I felt a sickness in my belly and fear. I explored this as I stood on the DLR on my way to the session. I felt a familiar anxiety that my having ‘failed’ though missing the last session would mean my therapist would be angry with me, would loose patience, tell me off and would no longer want to work with me.

On arriving he did want to talk about why I had missed the last session and I spoke of how I had felt as I was on my way to the session. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t tell me off. And he is still working with me. Slowly, in this way a new pattern of relating emerges where it is possible to be questioned and challenged if my actions have impacted on an agreed meeting, but without the message that I am a failure, or am going to be rejected. The limbic brain is then able to slowly reprogram its experience of what relationship is: rather than one of being at the mercy of an angry parent whom one has to please at all costs, there can be a sense of relationship being a more welcoming and nourishing place of equals.

 

 

As well as therapy, there is also the investigation we can do in the privacy of our own home and heart. The value of therapy is it involves us in a relationship with another person, and as the saying goes “we were wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”, we heal when we discover that there is a relationship where our weaknesses and foibles are held with care and love rather than being condemned. We also heal as in the relationship we are each able to reflect back to the other how the others actions are experienced, helping each person to explore more deeply their habitual ways of relating and behaving. But if like me you are not in a relationship or therapy is not for you, due to cost or inclinations, the video offers a lovely suggestion for self-reflection that can be doe on your own at home.

 

An exercise in self reflection:

Setting aside a good amount of time and taking paper and pen reflect first on what sort of people attract and excite us, and which put us off. Then trace these qualities back to the people who first loved us in childhood and ask how much our impulses really are aligned with things that will make us truly happy.

As we do this we may, for example, notice that we tend to be attracted to the bad boy type, overlooking someone who would treat us well. Perhaps we remember that a parent always ignored us, or was stern or judgemental and we realise that this energy of being ignored or belittled is our sense of what love can feel like – but that does not mean it is what love is.

During meditation and with the awareness that this cultivates we can also notice what our inner dialogue is like. How do we talk to ourselves? What sort of world do we weave into being through our thoughts? What is our place in that world? Are we at the centre being adored? Or are we at the edge being ignored? How does this inner drama impact on how we then interact with the external world? Does our inner drama become the way we make sense of the outer world, leading us to look for scenarios and relationships that confirm the world view we have come to believe in? If we think we are unlovable do we sit alone in our room lamenting how cruel and lonely the world is? If we believe we deserve to be the centre of attention are we out jumping into a party or a social engagement as we read this? It’s as if a drip of water has worn down a groove in the rock, once we could have been anything but now we live within the narrow confines of this groove of how we believe ourselves to be.

By exploring this we can start to open up to other possibilities of being loved, that right now feel unfamiliar. It may be that we are limited to being attracted to certain types because of things that happened to us in our past, but as we bring awareness to this we can start to question the certainty we feel when we believe we have met ‘the one’ when in fact they may simply be ‘the familiar’ which we equate with how it is to be loved. On meeting someone who does not bring up this familiar feeling, or whom we consider to be wrong or boring despite objectively having a lot going for them we may question if that necessarily means they are not suitable just because they do not feel familiar  – or in fact does the lack of familiarity perhaps suggest that there is something here that we do not have in our emotional lexicon but that could in fact be a healthy experience if we were to open to it. The next time we want to dismiss someone as being too keen, or too good, or too boring or unexciting asking if that is just because they do not feel familiar.

If you have enjoyed this theme the 5 minute video below outlines it in full detail. All images in this email are from this video.

 

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!

af153551-8346-449a-91e4-26dbc3b59a5b

.

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.

 

66b0146c-c756-43bc-b0e4-45a82d2fc6ae

 

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.

 

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-15-41-06

 

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.

 .

High Power Poses v Low Power Poses 

.

8aad1dd7-5b61-4299-b884-4233f1c3024c

 

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:

I love me – the science of self love

How uncomfortable does that statement make you feel? Or are you at ease with the sentiment of loving yourself?

The last two blogs have looked at creating new patterns through changing habits over 30 days and finding an accountability partner to help in this.  But as we engage in self development it is so important to notice the tendency to think I will be able to love myself when I am fixed.  We have an idea of how we should be and may not like who we are. If this is the case then there is a risk of always looking to a future version of our self that we can love but feeling that right now we are not lovable. And the people I trust tell me that freedom comes when we can rest into the deepest acceptance of who and how we are right now. To do this we need to turn to wards this moment and hold it fully with love and compassion. But if there is a pattern of not loving ourselves, or feeling we are broken and need fixing then our spiritual journey is sabotaged by the thought I have to make myself someone worthy of love, rather than I love me as I am.

Over my 25 years of teaching the Loving Kindness practice I have felt the benefit of directing this kind attention to myself and others and have seen how people struggle with feeling love for themselves. This last week I was teaching week 6 in the 8 week mindfulness course where we focus on the Loving Kindness practice.  As part of my own development I was listening to other teachers to get new perspectives on how to engage with the practice and I came across a new way of teaching it which immediately resonated.

Instead of moving on to the neutral and difficult person the practice focuses on oneself and a friend. Traditionally the Loving Kindness practice starts with thinking of a spiritual guide and directing Loving Kindness to them before moving to oneself. This gives a sense of being connected to another before dieting attention at oneself. But for most of us in the modern world we do not have a spiritual mentor so this stage is dropped. But this means we go straight into the wish for ourselves to be happy and well which many find hard to fully feel.

In this alternative version the practice starts with another being with whom we have an easy and uncomplicated relationship. This may be a child, a friend, a partner or a pet. Some people feel very lonely and may only feel a warm connection to a pet, and can feel this is not appropriate in the meditation. But the unconditional love a pet gives is exactly what we are looking to feel in this practice. Or we feel ourselves to be with a good friend, and see how pleased they are to see us.

We then wish this being well. And after a short period of this make the wish for both of us with “may we be happy…” In this way we get a feeling of connection. It is only then that we shift the focus to ourselves with “may I be happy” etc. And then rest in this.

I led this version in the class last Monday and people really liked it. On talking with my mindfulness supervisor she encouraged me to explore this approach. So many of us find it hard to really give ourselves love. In this practice we are given permission to fully explore this, without even extending it out to all beings. A Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that it is only when we can fully rest in this self love that we can then extend it to the neutral and difficult person, and from there to all beings. In a strange piece of synchronicity one of the participants on the 8 week course brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Loving Kindness practice in to share last week and it was there I read this advice. Then during the week I looked for a guided Loving Kindness practice and came across one that focused on friend and self without extending out to others and really enjoyed it.

Then on Looking at my book shelf this week I saw a book I’ve had for a few years and never read, ‘I love Me – the science of self-love’, by David Hamilton PhD. In conjunction with listening to the new guided meditation I’ve started reading this book and it is a great exploration of what harms self-love, and how to heal. So over the coming weeks this will be the focus of the emails and the class.

If you would like to buy the book it is available here or listen to him talk in the video below.

 

DNA – the human family

A few months ago a box arrived in the post. Inside was a clinical kit with a swab and a vile of liquid. The swab was for a DNA test and after rubbing it vigorously against my inside cheek it was deposited in the vile and sent off.  A month latter a large envelope was delivered. Inside was a book containing the break down of my DNA results.  Having grown up knowing that my relatives on my fathers side were Italian and Hungarian I was not surprised to find that the break down indicated DNA matches with central Europe and Southern Europe. What was surprising was to see I had only inherited 15% of DNA that matched with the British Isles.  Just looking at me in terms of DNA I have more in common with people living in central and Southern Europe than the UK!

Looking at my mother line the story becomes even more fascinating. The DNA match here is with people still living in Egypt. The  mother line tracing back much further to our origins in Africa.

Last week I was reflecting on the theory that we are all made of star dust. This week the reflection is again around interconnectedness, but now on the level of DNA. In this body, my body, there is DNA that is the same as people now living in Egypt, in Italy and Germany and Scandinavia. In fact I share more DNA with these people whom I have never met than with many people born in the UK. It is a reminder that we are one family.  That the divisions of national boundaries give us a sense of belonging, but that as bodies we are not  the product of just one geographic area.

d0040cac-11dc-4ab7-8247-659145038a41

bb6447ce-7d6c-4005-8468-309f94f436ee

c8944bcd-c9fc-457a-8f0f-908d2f3d04ee

 

I find this a fascinating reflection. A reminder on a scientific level of the spiritual teaching of the Buddha and other mystics that on a deep level we are all one. And that to divide off against others through hatred and aggression or a sense of self and other is to be ignorant of our shared nature and unity.

If we add to this the reflection that we are all made of the same elements that were born in the furnace of stars that burnt bright billions of years ago, we have a potent message from science that is inviting us to reflect on the teaching that we are part of a whole.

Many teachers give their disciples the simple question to ask as they rest in meditation: “who?”, or “who am I?” This was a question that I asked myself as a child as I stood out in the garden looking up at the stars. “Who am I and what is the point of being here?” It felt as if there was something I had forgotten and needed to remember to make sense of it all. I thought that on becoming an adult I would be inducted into the mystery, but instead it became the root of my interest in Buddhism and spiritual practice. It was the question that I hoped to find an answer to through meditation. I’ve not found an answer…but I enjoy the question still!

From this scientific and rational exploration of DNA and the origins of the elemental table in the stars we have one lesson that we may feel more deeply in meditation. In answer to the question who am I we get the answer I am both me, unique in this moment, and I am everything and everyone…… and everyone is me.

It was for this reason that the Buddha emphasised compassion as a central part of his teaching: learning to care for others as much as we care for oneself.  And in the modern world where we carry guilt and shame to a degree that was maybe not as strong in the past, we must bring this compassion to ourselves as well, learning to hold our own suffering with a kindness that does not condemn us for being weak or a failure.

As I teach I meet so many people who feel a sense of self loathing, or lack of self worth. I hope these reflections help: for rather than feeling a failure, when we see like this we see that we are part of a whole process of the Universe coming to know itself through us. We are each a vital part of that process. It is like one wave on the ocean thinking it is irrelevant – but without it the whole pattern of waves that flows back and forth could not exist as it is both unique and an integral part of that complex pattern of shifting and changing waves across the surface of the ocean. And beneath it is the still vast ocean of which it is made but from which it seems a separate thing, just as the teachings say we are part of a vast stillness which is our true nature: we are it but we forget and get lost in being a wave dashing from one shore to another. As we meditate we have the opportunity to feel this deeper peace, the peace of the ocean which we – and everyone and everything is made of: our true nature.

If you are interested in the DNA test I used DNA worldwide but there are many other sites and some may even offer a better test so do look around.

We are made of star dust

I remember hearing this quote some time ago, perhaps even as a child, as the show it was from, Cosmos, was broadcast in the ’70s. It always made me think of the vastness of the Universe and yet the intimacy of it all – that in this body there are elements forged in the furnace of suns that once burnt bright billions of years ago.

I was not aware of how much truth there was in it and decided last week to research it and I have been amazed at the beauty of this teaching.

6b3e3fd7-3d6f-4b9a-ba48-5e26239bfca8

 

The videos I’ve watched have explored the enormity of the evolution of life in the Universe. The early belief that all of the elements that are described on the periodic table came from the big bang started to be questioned in the 1950s when instead there was a new theory – that they had been created in the first suns that formed when the sea of hydrogen that at that point made up the universe first clumped together to form the first suns. Then as these early suns burnt they in turn created all of the other elements. As these stars then grew old and eventually imploded and then exploded more elements were created and scattered out into the universe in the way  mushroom spoors are scattered out. Seen like this life didn’t simply start on the Earth, but Earth (and any other inhabited planets we are not aware of) is the final expression of a process of life evolving that started with these early suns. For a more detailed description of this process click on the video below.

..

.

What does this signify and why have it as a reflection in a mindfulness email?  For me it points to one of the central teachings of the Buddha: interconnectedness. The Buddha taught that it is only in our ignorance that we think of ourselves as separate egos, because we identify with our bodies as distinct and apart from each other. For him, seeing with wisdom meant seeing that everything was interdependent and interconnected: no one thing exists in isolation from anything else and nothing is born only from itself, but arise out of a complex matrix of conditions.

It is as if a wave on the ocean thought it was a distinct, permanent and seperate thing. But on waking up to its true nature it realises that it is both a unique expression of being a wave existing in the present moment and at the same time made of the ocean of which it is a part and which in fact it is: the wave merely appearing to be something separate and distinct whilst actually being intricately connected to the ocean.  The wave is simply the ocean knowing itself as a wave. And as such there is no difference between any of the waves, for they are all the ocean, and yet all unique.

The Buddha also emphasised compassion. A deep feeling of empathy and connection to the suffering of all other beings. If the wave in our analogy wakes up to being part of the ocean, then it immediately realises that all of the other waves are in fact, itself. That they are all unique and beautiful expressions in the moment of the one source: the ocean, which is what all of the waves share. They are at the same time unique and totally the same.

.

9fbc07f0-26cb-4f99-a8ac-39096f7e3f6a
.
If the atoms in me were forged in a star many billions of years ago how many other life forms have they passed through? How many worlds have they been a part of? How many animals and other human beings? This body is not mine. It is ours.  And as I  look at others if I start to see stars and the flow of life rather than just individual beings then each person is both eternity and a single moment: the ocean and the wave.

Right now this is poetry for me rather than a deeply felt insight. But I believe poetry opens the heart and can give rise to wisdom. When the rational mind stops trying to understand and find an answer poetry and the heart rest into the not knowing and find an answer in the question: who am I?

As science shows us, one answer is ‘I am the universe’. Feeling this in the heart takes it to a deeper level of insight. One which would lead to a love for all beings as part of oneself, just as the wave would love all waves when it woke up to knowing that it was an expression of the ocean in one point of time, manifesting in form as a wave. Just as we are the universe knowing itself in this moment of time manifesting as intelligent life in this moment of time, formed of atoms create by the universe in the seed houses of the stars.

Taking this reflection into the Loving Kindness practice can offer a way of opening our hearts to all beings: friend, neutral and difficult.

.

 

 

New Year resolutions: rejecting what is wrong with us or celebrating our achievements?

 

As we approach the end of the year there is the all too often repeated ritual of making New year resolutions: made to be broken a few weeks into the New Year! Why is this? One reason might be that we try to create the ideal me in our resolutions. But this ideal me is not who I am right now so there is a conflict between how I am right now and how I think I should be, with the result that our resolutions do not celebrate us and what we have achieved but are like a teacher caustically saying “could do better” on our end of year report when we have done the best that we can!

Over the last few years I’ve suggested that we try a different approach. One that celebrates where we are whilst also acknowledging any change we would like to cultivate. Think of your life as being like a field you are tending.  There will be some weeds that left unchecked may choke the growth of the crop we wish to cultivate. The Buddha encouraged us to reflect on what  thoughts and actions lead us to greater calm, contentment and wisdom and which lead to suffering and sorrow. This is with the intention of identifying ways of thinking and acting that lead to our suffering, which then gives us an opportunity to choose how to act in ways that most lead to our well-being. But there is the risk of then trying to fix ourselves by making resolutions to be the opposite of the unwholesome self we have identified. In this way we are trying to get away from something rather than move towards what we are attracted by. The Buddha phrased it as seeing what thoughts and actions lead to greater peace and simply recognising those that lead away. Just as one would not touch a burning coal knowing it would cause suffering, the more fully one feels that certain actions lead to suffering one will pull away from them.

The dilemma is learning to open fully to the fact that certain actions do cause suffering rather than thinking they are a source of pleasure! Perhaps we eat more than is healthy for us. Or there is an addiction of some kind, or we sit at home on the computer rather than going out to the gym session or a walk in the park we know we ‘should’ do but do not feel drawn towards. If we then make resolutions based on what we should do, because it’s good for us, there is little emotional excitement in doing that rather than the thing we think we shouldn’t do because we know it is bad for us – but which we enjoy on one level!

How to make this switch from forcing ourselves through resolutions to do what is good for us but we do not feel an emotional pull towards and to cease to do the things we know are not good for us but we feel an emotional pull towards because they offer some sort of pleasure in the moment – even if afterwards we feel regret or shame? It’s something I’m still working on so I don’t have a definitive answer! The area I’ve been looking at in this regard is sleep. I feel great when I’m in bed and asleep by 11. I wake rested and early enough to meditate and do some exercise before breakfast. But so often I get caught up in distractions, looking at news reports on You Tube or checking Facebook, only to get lost in various posts and links to articles.

I might make a resolution to go to bed earlier, but this is trying to get away from the problem.  How might I turn it around to approach the solution, to approach a way of being that the heart becomes excited by?

The Ulysses Contract in Action

The first step was acknowledging it as something that was taking me away from happiness. I was talking with a friend after last week’s Monday class and we talked of the things we were doing that were habitual and difficult to change. Once the neural connections have been laid down for certain actions it will be the default mode of the brain to make that choice, whatever ours might be: to reach for food when unhappy, to associate bedtime with watching news and distraction, to be lived by an addictive behaviour unthinkingly. How much do we live our lives, and how much are we lived by our habit patterns? Did we consciously choose these habit patterns or are they the result of life circumstances that have shaped our behaviour, but not our true being? To start to be conscious of them is to start to choose how we wish to live our life, rather than just going with what we have unconsciously picked up along the way.

By having this discussion with my friend I was able to recognise my own unaware habitual behaviour through seeing his. It’s so much easier to recognise someone else’s self-justifying behaviour than see one’s own! But then he said something that really hit home for me. We were talking about the Ulysses contract or accountability buddy concept that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The idea that one makes an agreement with another which then ties one to the intended action though checking in with each other to say if we have done it, or agreeing to meet to do an activity together so it is not so easy to make an excuse not  to go. He said that during the week when he was feeling like acting on his habit he would think what would he say to me about my bedtime habits, and then turn that around to asking himself what is he going to do about his habit. Seeing how clearly he could see the unhelpfullness of my habits to me would then act as a reminder to him to see his habits more clearly rather than justify them. Likewise, I could think to myself, “what would I say to my friend about his habit” as I felt inclined towards clicking on You Tube late at night. It worked incredibly well. Often unhelpful habits arise out of a sense of loneliness and disconnection. By choosing instead to have it be a reminder to feel my connection with a friend who is also working on turning towards a way of being that is more nourishing for him it helped me to make a choice in that moment to turn the computer off and go to bed.

This has been the first week in a long time that I have gone to bed at 11pm regularly and it happened out of feeling a sense of commitment to my friend, wanting to be able to see him and say “yes, I kept thinking of you and it helped me to make a choice that was more in line with my wellbeing”. It has been said that as social animals we can use shame to our advantage – the things we justify to ourselves when done in private finding it harder to do if it means loosing face in front of another by admitting to them. So making this public to a friend and agreeing to check in with each other may help to remind us of what our deeper wish is for ourselves, rather than falling into the automatic pattern of following the habit. Once we have done this for a while it becomes easier to see that we are not the habit. That it is living us and we have a choice to see it, name it and say yes to an alternative way of being.

This sense of saying yes to a life I choose rather than passively living out a habit pattern that has become established and routine makes me feel much more attracted to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm, as opposed to making a resolution that just says ‘go to bed early!’, which feels like a parent telling me what to do. I then feel the consequences of waking up refreshed, having time to meditate and exercise and how this sets up the day. This then gives me more of a feeling of attraction to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm.

“Friendship with the wise is the Whole of the Spiritual Life”

An oft quoted statement of the Buddha’s is that “friendship with the wise is the whole of the spiritual life”. Friendship with others who are becoming more self aware and compassionate is thus vital to our own well-being. Talking openly about the unhelpful habit with such a friend helps in letting go of shame around the activity. How often do we beat ourselves up about a behaviour that we know is not good for us? But would we treat a friend in the same way? We would be kind, compassionate and caring for our friend. We might hold a boundary for them and question their actions but we would not condemn them as being stupid or a failure. If the habit is living us and is simply the result of experiences in life that have given rise to a certain activity then it is not who we are. As such there is no need to condemn ourselves for our over eating, porn addiction, binge drinking or whatever it might be. Instead by sharing it with a friend we see it as it is, a behaviour that does not serve us but keeps us trapped in a repetitive cycle.

When we look with compassion at ourselves and see that this way of acting leads away from the peace, contentment and well being we wish for ourselves we have the opportunity to acknowledge to another that we see this and in doing so we have their support in seeing who we truly are, which is not the habit, but a being who is spontaneously manifesting every moment in the moment. Just as the sky is not the clouds, even if it is totally obscured by them, in the same way we are not our habit patterns, even if they seem to dominate. Habit patterns were learnt, and exist due to the neural pathways they have burnt in our brain, but they can be unlearnt. The difficulty will be letting the neural pathway dissolve as the brain will tend to go with the easiest route. So we need to make new choices that lead to no longer using that old neural pathway. After a while those synapses in the brain will disengage and what seemed like an impossible habit to break will no longer be an active pathway. The short video below gives a beautiful depiction of how this process works and hints at why, once established, it is so hard to break a neural pathway.

Celebrating our Achievements

Rather than wishing we were our ideal self we can end the year celebrating our achievements. Spend a little while reflecting on what actions over the last year have, in however small a way, taken you towards a greater sense of well-being, peace and fulfilment. Perhaps you didn’t go to the gym 3 times a week and lose the weight you intend this time last year, but what have you done that has in some way been in line with your intention of caring for yourself? Perhaps you did a course, or became a little more healthy in some way it would be easy to discount if it does not match with the total transformation you wished for last New Year’s Eve.

You may not have established a 40 minute daily mindfulness practice, but you have remembered to stop and take a breath at times of stress, which you now see helps you to return to equilibrium. Building on this breath you can move towards the daily mindfulness practice from an appreciation of what you have already established rather than feeling a failure.

New Year’s Eve Ritual

In summary, as you prepare to see in the New Year you may like to reflect on the past year in terms of your achievements and let this inform your list of resolutions rather than it being a to do list of how to be a better version of you! As part of this you may like to reflect on the following two points:

1. What have I seen in my behaviour over the last year that does not take me towards peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have diminished my sense of self-worth?
2. What ways of being have there been in this last year that in some way, however small, have taken me towards a sense of peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have contributed to my sense of self-worth? Celebrate these and resolve to live more fully from these habits and ways of being in the year to come.

You may then like to create a ritual around this based on what we did in the monastery at New Year’s eve. Write both down on separate pieces of paper. Keep the ways of being that you wish to live more fully from in 2017. Put them somewhere special so that you can refer back to them regularly. With the things you wish to let go of find a way of burning this list. We used to have a large steel pan with a night light inside. Light the paper and put it in, and watch the unhelpful habits of the last year burn away.

81a43054-ee98-4656-bd2b-2a6bd59e67a0
%d bloggers like this: