Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I was listening to Soul Music on Radio 4 this week. The song was one I did not know: Sandy Denny ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, which she wrote when she was 19. It’s a very poignant song about the passing of things and how we experience time and loss. The programme brought together various people who had been touched by the song and at the end David Eagleman was interviewed. He is a neuroscientist and has studied time and how we perceive it, his interest in this growing from an experience he had as a child. He described how as a child he fell off a roof and as he did so had time to consider if there was anything he could grab hold of and also to think that this must be how Alice felt as she fell down the hole – before hitting the ground.

Latter when David Eagleman studied physics he worked out how long it had taken him to fall, and was astonished to realise that what had seemed like a long duration in terms of his thoughts and observations, had only taken .8 of a second. This reminded me of my experience of being knocked off my scooter as a 17 year old. I was going along happily making my way home when a car pulled out of a side road in front of me. I saw it and knew there was no way to avoid hitting it side on as I pulled on the brakes and tried to swerve to avoid a direct hit. I hit it side on and was thrown over the car onto the opposite side of the road. As this happened I had the most bizarre experience of time seeming to stop and be vast as I felt my self in the air. I remember seeing my whole life as a film, playing in front of my eyes. And I had the thought “it’s not time to go yet I have things still to do”. With this I felt a thud as I landed on the road. I sat up, my chin bleeding. I looked around, and said “I have the most frightful headache!”.

The rest of the day proceed at normal time, with the trip to hospital, going into surgery for my chin to be stitched. Recovering. But I was left, as with David Eagleman, with a sense that time is not what we think it to be. In the space of a second I felt that I had had time to review my whole life – all 17 years it at that point, so not so much – but still more than I would usually be able to remember in a second!

Now as a 46 year old man I notice how for both myself and friends we all have the experience of time passing so much more quickly than as a child. I remember how as a child the long Summer holiday really did feel as if it was a universe of time – it seemed like a vast expanse of weeks, full of adventure and long summer days. Now I reach the end of the year and wonder where 12 months have gone!

David Eagleman addresses this as well in the programme and what he says has really fascinated me. His interest in time has led him to study how we perceive time and he has found that there is a reason time seems to last longer as a child. Children are learning about the world – it is all new and full of wonder and surprises. The brain is still building up its template by which it will read the world so is constantly learning and taking in new information to assimilate and file. As an adult we’ve learnt the rules and patterns that govern our perception of the world and so are not laying down new memories. As a result of this there is less for the brain to do to process and store each day and thus less of a sense of time being long and expansive as each day is like the last and passes without note or novelty.

Think of it as going on a journey for the first time. You look at the landmarks, orient yourself, notice how to navigate your way along the route. But once this has become familiar after several journeys, you soon slip into auto pilot, not even needing to pay that much attention to where you are going in order to arrive. I remember this experience even as a child – for some reason the route to my Uncle’s always seemed longer on the way there, whereas driving back always felt faster – although it was the same time and same route. What if our life is like this – having become familiar with it, it just goes by quickly?

David Eagleman suggests that to give ourselves the sense of living longer – or at least slowing down the perception of how fast time is passing – through seeking novelty. If we give our brain something new to learn or do it will once agin have to store new learning, memories and experiences, making the perception of time slow down. I remember on an 8 week mindfulness course we were talking about auto  pilot, which is the theme in week 1. Some people really reflected on how they had fallen into automatic ways of behaving and started to take a different route to the station on leaving work. They said how amazing it was to walk a new route after years of always going the same way, and how much more enjoyable it was to have this sense of novelty. Perhaps as well as finding new routes in our outer life, though walking different streets to get to a familiar destination, we can also take new routes in our life: learning a new hobby, trying out a new way of being, or as  mentioned last week finding a new way to start our day – for me this has been by dancing in my room rather than our usual routine of starting the day!

 

The other place you can notice this relativity of time is in meditation itself. On any Monday evening there will be those who feel that the 25 minutes of the sit went by so quickly. Whilst for others the sit will have seemed to be an eternity. In that sense there is no such thing as 25 minutes. There is only our perception of time in the present moment. And that changes depending on how we are relating to the present moment as it arises in our experience. Wanting an experience to be over, it seems to go on for ever. Wanting it never to end, it seems to go all too quickly. This makes boredom in meditation a very valuable place to work. All we are doing is sitting, resting our attention on the breath – so there is nothing really to object to in this experience. But when the heart-mind does not want to settle in the moment there is a sense of struggle and this can give rise to a feeling of boredom or irritation: either way the desire is the same: for the meditation to be over. By sitting with this experience it is possible to learn that time exists as a perception and changes when I change how I am relating to my experience in the present moment. Become interested in the sense of boredom and suddenly instead of the time dragging until the bell goes it will pass quickly.

This applies in our our life as well as our meditation practice. There is a fantastic scene in Metropolis where a worker is waiting to be relived from his shift. As he looks at the minute had of the clock it seems to last an eternity before clicking the last minute to the end of the shift. I remember this experience myself when I was working as a customer service assistant on London Underground. Standing at the gates looking at the clock for the last five minutes of my shift seemed to last longer than all the hours I had worked! So this seems to point to a paradox. If we take what David Eagleman has said about time seeming to last longer when we approach things with a fresh and questioning mind but that it also slows down when we are disengaged and bored. Perhaps the difference is the sense of alive engagement. In boredom and the feeling of life passing by too quickly there is a sense of not being fully present in the experience of living. In both an engaged and curious exploration of life through being fully in the moment and the experience of life being novel and new through finding ways of living that step out of our routine habits, there is a sense of aliveness in the moment.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Finding My Tribes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read The Machine Stops click here

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

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

 

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

To buy click here

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.

 

Learning through cartoons

I read an article in the week saying that teens learn better from comics than text books. I was fascinated by this, and it makes sense if it is true that the brain thinks in pictures – a comic or graphic depiction of conceptual information meets the brain in its own language, rather than having to convert concepts into ideas.

I had a look for illustrated mindfulness and found this artist. So for this weeks email I’ll hand over to a visual communication. To see more of his work visit Tumbler or his illustrated mindfulness posts on The Huffington Post

.

Let It Be

Ajhan Chah was my teacher’s teacher. He was a Thai monk who left the urban monastery where he was ordained and went to live in the forest to follow the Buddha’s example and teaching in as authentic way as was possible. At the time in the late 19th and early 20th century this forest movement was radical. It was a rejection of the excepted belief that Enlightenment was no longer possible, that a monk could only hope to live a good life but not find the freedom the Buddha taught as this was thought to be a degenerate age which no longer supported the arising of insight. Instead these monks followed their hearts and their conviction that by diligently following the Buddha’s example, going into the forest, meditating and observing their own minds and hearts they could find freedom from suffering.

Initially doing this for themselves, as their reputation as wise beings started to spread communities grew up around them as others went to live in the forest with them, to learn from them and be trained. Thus it was that my teacher Ajahn Sumedho, an American who had found his way to Thailand in the 60s, went to live with a group of Westerners who had gathered around Ajhan Chah.

I never met Ajhan Chah as he died before I was living in the monastery.  By all accounts he was a man full of laughter and joy. Those that I have met who seem more free all share this quality of joy and a lightness of heart, whilst having a deep empathy for the suffering they see in others.
 .

 

The quote at the top of this essay is one I often refer to in my own practice and when I teach. It says so much in so few words. The way one seeks to become something, even when looking for freedom: the seeking to be the one who is free, rather than resting into the freedom that is here. His simple encouragement to “let it be” resonated with me when I first read it: no longer fighting how things are or regretting the past or worrying about the future, but instead allowing for the simple truth of: “this is how it is, it’s like this”. Whenever I met with Ajhan Sumedho he would respond to my anxieties and fretting worries with this simple reply “this is how it is”.

But it was only this month that I saw this version of the quote.  Before it ended with “resist nothing”. Which is a very clear encouragement to be open to what is present without judgement or favour. But the whole message of this quote is given deeper meaning by the last sentence:

“If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate”

This struck me in the gut as I read it and makes me wonder in some respects if I have even begun to meditate! I have certainly not wept deeply.  I have stayed on the surface of the ocean of worry and despair, but only because this is a familiar and comfortable place to be. It is a habit pattern of the mind that is known and strangely comfortable to inhabit. But how would it be to dive in? To feel fully?

.

The two wings of Awakening: Wisdom and Compassion

Something I have realised recently is that the teaching consists off two wings: wisdom and compassion. With only one wing one cannot fly. Both are needed, but it is easy to focus on one more than the other depending on one’s tendencies.

Wisdom sees that this is all passing, that there is no permanent self and thus no-one to suffer. There is only this moment arising right now, born of conditions that give rise to it. Allowing those conditions to subside this experince will pass and in seeing this one sees that all experience is empty of any inherent, permanent self or ego. All of this is known by Awareness, which is a dispassionate presence that witnesses without being impacted by what is seen, like the sky holding the clouds.

But the Buddha always taught that Enlightenment is composed of both Wisdom and Compassion. That one on its own is not enough to give rise to liberation, nor is it a full expression of freedom. Wisdom without compassion can be a cold knowing that does not feel the pain of humanity and dismisses it as foolish weakness.

Compassion opens to, embraces, holds and is tender to the suffering that is here in one’s own heart and the hearts of others. Compassion without Wisdom though could be sentimental or get lost in overwhelming feelings of sorrow for the pain in the world or a desire to fix others.

Ajhan Chah’s last sentence suggests to me the importance of allowing oneself to feel fully. To open to being fully with the sorrow, the pain and hurt that this human life can hold. Whilst also maintaining the Wisdom element of dispassion that knows not to grasp at this as being me or mine or a permanent and fixed state.

How to do this?

I wish I knew. Then I would be what my About pointed to when he gave me my Buddhist name. As a monk I was known as Bodhinando, which translates as the Bliss of Enlightenment. I was very far from Bliss when he gave me the name and at times it feels I am no nearer now! But it is a reminder that Awakening is Bliss, that my true nature is freedom and joy.

The Buddhist training always required one to take a teacher, a guide whose insight was a little deeper than one’s own. They did not have to be a fully liberated being, but one who could give one enough guidance, encouragement and perspective to help one rest more deeply in to freedom. The Buddha went so far as to say that such friendship was the whole of the spiritual life. As a guide and teacher, or spiritual friend in Buddhist terminology, they could see one more clearly than one might see oneself and through their guidance and encouragement one would come to see something that by simply observing one’s own habit partners of thinking and behaviour might never become clear. As such the modern equivalent to a wise teacher or spiritual friend is a therapist.

I have recently been looking at various opportunities for therapy and one option has now arisen for starting in April. When I was at the monastery there were two camps: the monks who believed meditation and the monastic training was enough, and those who saw therapy as a way to deepen the practice and open more to allowing a shift to take place. I was in therapy for much of the time I was in the monastery as my Abbot believed it to support the training. But since leaving I have not been able to continue this until now.  But I do feel ready for a shift, to face the patterns of thoughts and feelings with support and to see how they can be held, felt , seen and allowed to shift into a place of greater freedom.

.

Healing in Relationship

As I often quote: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship” and if I am to allow myself to explore connecting deeper into my heart I hope that by entering into a relationship with a therapist it will help me to feel more deeply, to recognise the patterns of feeling and thinking that are so close they seem to be me, but are constructs, created over time and maintained simply out of habit rather than because they are true.

I often feel sad. And often wake up feeling that I want to cry. The sadness of life, its fragility and uncertainty: this life “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I asked Jeff Foster about this experience of waking up with a sense of sadness. He had been talking about his own experience of this in the past and how he found that resisting it did not make it go away, instead he needed to fully allow that it was there, as an experience. But the shift was of seeing that it it could be held with love. To see that sadness, that crying deeply, does not then mean I am a sad person, only that in this being there is a feeling of sadness….and it can be held. The risk of applying only Wisdom to this is that we try to find ways to never have to feel sad, as we label it as wrong, but if we bring in Compassion then we fly on the two wings of liberation: Wisdom and Compassion. The loving heart that feels deeply and the wise knowing that lets it go. But to let go one first needs to feel, and hence to be ready to weep deeply in meditation….or with one’s therapist or a good friend who can hold it without fear or judgement.

Community

Over the last few weeks I have shared from some places of struggle and it has been so heart warming to have had people responding to the group email with their own messages of support and care.  Receiving this support reminded me of a teaching I heard early in my involvement with Buddhism. When I started out I saw the path of liberation as being about a solitary journey to ever deeper self-awareness and freedom. And I liked this myth of the  solitary spiritual warrior when I started meditating in my 20s. But then I heard this teaching relating to the Buddha and Ananda, a monk who accompanied the Buddha throughout his life as a teacher and up until the Buddha’s death:

One day Ananda, who had been thinking deeply about things for a while, turned to the Buddha and exclaimed:

 
”Lord, I’ve been thinking- spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!” 
The Buddha replied: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!”
(Samyutta Nikaya, Verse 2)

In this context spiritual friendship means a close and ongoing connection with others who share ones sense of purpose and calling. Later when I lived in the monastery a therapist from the Karuna Institue visited to do some therapy work with a group of us and he said something which I have remembered ever since: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. We do not fix ourselves in isolation. It is only when we are with others that we can explore experiencing where we were wounded in relationship and find a new way of relating to the unhealthy patterns of relating to ourself and others in a way that they may be held and allowed to heal or become more creative.

“We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”

Where I was wounded in relationship may be familiar to you:

  • the boy that learnt to hide his spontinaiety, after being laughed at for taking a doll into school, for being so useless at football, for not fitting in with the boys and preferring to play with the girls at break time – skipping rather than football was my choice!
  • The boy that wants to be part of something larger, but withdrew when that larger whole sought to ridicule him.
  • The laughter of boys at school as a teenager as they called me “gay”, the start of the belief there was something wrong with me, that if I could just find the ‘right’ way to behave so that others wouldn’t spot this then I could hide this fatal flaw. And so the defences went up. Spontaneity was a danger. Becoming guarded and wary of how I showed myself was essential to survive.

As a result by the time I was an adult I only felt safe talking one to one with others. Being in a group overwhelmed me. I could not control the dynamics of a group discussion. And I did not know how to join in with the flow of conversation. In my 20s I attended many group study retreats for the Buddhist group I was involved with. I would spend a week sitting in these sessions saying nothing. It felt safer to be invisible than to speak. By now it was not that I could not join in. When I did join in people listed and even enjoyed what I said. But the neural wiring in my brain just did not allow for an ease of entering a group discussion, for so long the default mode had been to withdraw, watch, listen and asses. Even now going into a space where I am not leading it brings up a moment of fear: I will have to be me, judged as a fellow participant, not the leader of the group.

It’s been a while since I was in a group discussion of this sort and at the New Year Loving Men retreat I decided to goto one. Phoebus, the group’s facilitator, explained how this session and the sessions he runs in London for gay and bi men work. He talked about how the sessions had a duel intention:
1. To discuss the theme, which relates to a different aspect of sexuality in each meeting
2. To explore and make conscious the dynamic of how we are in the group.

The value of the second point is that how we are in a group will very likely mirror how we interact in the world, in groups and our everyday life and helps the process of bringing awareness to the hidden and unconscious patterns that have become established in directing our behaviour. As the quote from Jung below states, it is only by bringing into the light of awareness that which is in shadow that we can start to act freely rather than be a puppet dangling on the strings of habit.

094ff451-fa17-4eec-99e0-05d2e2d4ec71

It was with a little trepidation, and some excitement, that I approached my first of these meetings in London last Tuesday. Phoebus was there to host a discussion on online dating/hook up aps, how we use them and our experience of them. With the other men there we started to talk about our experience and how we present ourselves in this virtual world. It was a great opportunity to bring what is often a private and hidden part of one’s life into a public space. I enjoyed the conversation, but as the session went on I noticed my self feeling less able  to talk and how Phoebus would invite me to join the conversation at times, which reminded me of how I used to be in groups and how the facilitator would need to draw me in.

During the session I noticed my internal reaction to how I was perceiving someone else in the group, but did not feel comfortable to bring that into the space: I had to be good, not cause trouble, be the one who keeps the peace rather than stir things up. This is my pattern: to be concerned for others and their feelings rather than myself, while inside I’m not happy at all. Talking with the facilitator afterwards he reassured me this was exactly the sort of thing that I could bring into the discussion – so that between us we could explore the roles we were taking on in the group, roles that we would naturally slip into whenever we are in a group or social setting.

“You’re so dull, no one wants to listen to you”

I find this to be a fascinating opportunity to explore how I relate to groups, to being with others, and finding my voice. My inner critic still tells me I’m boring, that I have nothing to say that my only point of conversation is meditation and after this niche area is set aside people will see how dull I am. My self critic tells me I’m a failure, and that no matter how someone may like me to start with they will soon see through that show of confidence and reject what they see. I see how this belief originated in my unhealthy childhood friendship with a boy that would befriend me one day and drop me the next, only to make me a friend again before dropping me again. This went on for years until I unfriended him aged 9 and never spoke to him again for the rest of our school life together!

This belief that people will see me as not worth their friendship is at least conscious now and I know not to believe it. It’s the propaganda machine of the mind churning out its vitriol. But as I mentioned at the start it is in relationship that we heal, not in isolated introspection. The search light of inner awareness can bring what is in the shadows into the light, but to relearn and remake those neural pathways in the brain takes engaging with a group, a community, with “spiritual  friends” where new patterns may be learnt or built up.

I’m therefore looking forward to attending more of these workshops. And I hope I may see some of you there for an opportunity to share in discussion but also in supporting each other to heightening self-awareness and to letting go of the patterns that do not serve us – or to celebrate behaviour that supports us but which we do not see. When I told a friend I fear being a failure as a meditation teacher, he looked at me, said “you’ve run a meditation class for gay/bi men for all these years. You’re a success. So don’t believe that anymore” And with that I saw that he was right, in purely objective terms, and that I just kept crashing on the rocks of self-doubt by listening to the siren’s song of self-deprecation.

Whilst I was reflecting on  the theme for this week I listened to Jeff Foster’s 6 minute video below where he explores how to relate to self-blaming thoughts through becoming the compassionate witness holding the pain through untangling the thoughts from the feelings rather than trying to silence them or escaping them through addiction: “When you can hold a feeling you’re no longer controlled by it”. He makes the important point that these thoughts of being wrong or a failure originated as a child as a way to protect oneself – it was safer to blame oneself as it was too dangerous to think mum or dad is bad or wrong, which would make this world too unsafe to endure. By opening to holding what is there we can see that we are neither a failure, nor are we a success. We just are.

%d bloggers like this: