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Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

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.

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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.

Surfing the Waves of Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power Of Posture To Change How You Feel

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Moving from “not enough” to “Enough”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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High Power Poses v Low Power Poses 

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

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

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

Miricle Morning

This morning I was reading a book about how to engage with the morning in a more creative way and the author gave six tips which I’ll share below. Some of them I’ve been doing, others are new to me, but it helped to see them outlined so clearly and I hope they will offer you some encouragement or ideas for how to enjoy your morning and engage wit it in a creative way.

1. Getting up with a sense of purpose. It’s so easy to hit the snooze button and roll over.  But the muggy sense of not quite having woken up can then hang like a fog over the morning. In another book I’ve enjoyed reading, The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Steven Peters, he talks about the conflicting agendas that can occupy the mind at this transitional time of waking.  The more instinctual brain, which he refers to as the chimp brain, simply wants warmth and comfort. It has no interest in our morning yoga routine or the super green smoothie or hot lemon water we intend drinking. It just wants to  lo lie in bed, feel warm, and quite probably have a wank to pass the time!

Dr Peters goes on to say that the less attractive side to this chimp brain is its tendency to also get lost in all of the vague worries and sense of unspecific sadness that can arise in the morning – and that wanting to stay cuddled up in bed is in part an attempt to avoid facing these. Rather than allow the chimp mind to take over with unspecific cares and worries as we lie in bed Dr Peters suggests that we make a resolve the night before: “on waking I’ll say to myself no thinking until I’ve got up and brushed my teeth”, then as we wake and the mind wants to go into its worry mode – the chimp wanting to check if there is any danger around before leaving the den – instead we say to ourselves “no thinking until I’ve brushed my teeth” and jump out of bed. Which brings us to Harv Eker’s second point.

2. Change you morning routine to increase your wake up motivation. If you imagine a scale of 1 too 10, where 10 is that you are most eager to get up, 1 least eager, where are you currently? The following points are intended to help you reach 10.

i) On going to bed affirm that you will wake feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy the day. Imagine waking and wanting to start your day in whatever way you have planned and feel the enjoyment of this. This is based on the principle that our last thought on falling asleep will likely be our first experience on waking.  If we fall asleep dreading the next day, then we likely wake up with that feeling of dread. It can help to think about what our objectives are for the next day so that the brain can reflect on these as we sleep and we wake ready to engage with them.

ii) Place your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. This  links with Dr Peters suggestion to get straight out of bed and not succumb to the chimp mode of retreating into the den and worrying if it is safe to emerge and may help if we really can’t motivate ourselves to get up. I often find that there’s a feeling of lethargy that tells me I need more sleep, which goes as soon as I am up but with could lead to spending more time in  bed without benefiting from it and may result in not having enough time to meditate before breakfast. For me the contrast of a period of meditation on waking and laying in bed after waking has no comparison. Meditating leaves me feeling centred and refreshed and is  as if I have had a second does of deep sleep, whereas napping just leaves me feeling buggy and less refreshed.

iii) Go and brush your teeth so that you feel fresh.

iv) On waking drink a glass of water with half a lemon squeezed into it to rehydrate after a night of loosing water through breathing.

I would add a 5th suggestion: meditating for ten minutes before going to bed and then seeing how much you can keep your attention on the breath or the sensations of contact with the bed as you fall asleep to prevent going back into random thoughts. Meditating before bed is a bit like doing a system clean on the computer. You may not feel very focused, and a lot of images and thoughts from the day may drift through your mind, but by dong this before going to sleep you’ve already started the process of clearing out the detritus of the day and may be able to sleep deeper as a result. Keeping your focus on the breath or body as you fall asleep also helps you go into a deeper sleep.

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3. Making time for purposeful silence each morning.  The easiest way to do this is to establish a regular mindfulness practice. Ten minutes a day of mindfulness practice has been found to be the minimum amount of time that is still effective. Any less and participants on research projects did not show the benefits of the practice. Meditating for longer but more sporadically did not show the same benefits as those who were able to do it every day for ten minutes. If you do not already have it here is a ten minute guided meditation to down load. Or you might enjoy sitting for ten minutes looking out at the garden or the sky with no other distractions. Finding your way to have some purposeful silence at the start of the day.

4. Affirmations. This is one I struggle with as I think we often use affirmations to try and escape from where we are rather than face what we are feeling. I may be about to give a public talk and notice feeling anxious. Saying “I am confident and strong” a 100 times – when in fact I need to feel that I am frightened and terrified of speaking in public – will not necessarily change the fear and may just add to the sense of failure when I still feel it on standing to talk. In contrast learning to hold the fear means it can then be felt, allowed, listen to and may change…or may not, but the relationship to it has changed. Denying that it is there only pushes it under the surface and then when we dry up on giving the public talk we just feel worse because our affirmations did not work!

But perhaps there is a way of using affirmations so that we face what is there and give ourselves a boost of confidence. Saying “I am willing to feel my fear of public speaking and be patient with it”, or we may have some affirming self talk to counter the voice saying ‘you’re going to fail’ such as:”On standing to speak I will remember to take a breath and feel my feet on the floor and however it is I’m OK, I still love myself as I am, not for how I perform.” or whatever it might be that connects us to our self-worth and self-empowerment.

The second aspect of this stage is visualisations. Here we see and feel and imagine how it will be to be doing the thing we want. So we imagine how it would be to stand and talk and feel at ease, or at least to be at ease with our unease by breathing deeply and focusing on the contact with the floor. Or if we are wanting to stop smoking we visualise how we will feel when we can breathe freely again, or engage with a sport we have had to give up. The trick is to focus on the positive outcome rather than on looking at escaping from the unwanted behaviour. This links with a research project that found that when two groups of students were given a task to help a mouse through a maze (on paper) there was a distinct difference between the group helping the mouse back to its home and some tasty cheese and those helping it run home to escape an owl. The group who were taking it home to the cheese were found to be twice as open and creative in their thinking when tested afterwards. Trying to avoid the problem by running from the owl, in contrast, led to a significant decline in creative thinking and mental agility. So notice if you are using affirmations and visualisation to escape the owl of fear or a sense of weakness or anxiety about failure and instead focus on the ‘cheese’ of the good feeling of living to your full potential, or speaking clearly despite feeling nervous.

5. Morning exercise. I have recently started doing the Five Tibetans in the morning again. They are a set of five yoga moves that take around 15 minutes to do. I’ve also returned to Freeletics – a calisthenic style of workout. But it’s so easy to let it slip. So this reminds me of the value of doing the Five Tibetans every day and Freeletics four times a week. Consider what your exercise might be: yoga, a quick walk, jog or some other form of exercise. Eban Pagan, a successful entrepreneur, was asked what the number one key to success was for him. He answered “start the morning off with a personal success ritual” and then went on to emphasise the value of moving exercise as part of this ritual, explaining that it gets his heart rate up, his blood pumping and his lungs filled with air.

 

 

6. Read and write in the morning. 

i) We all know the value of reading, but it’s so easy to let the books sit by our bed as we are busy with other things. But making a new habit of reading 10 pages a day, which roughly takes 20 minutes, would result in reading approximately 18 books a year.  The suggestion is to find books that are relevant to your interest in personal growth and self awareness, but it could include any area of interest that you want to deepen your knowledge in or novels that open you to  the insights of the author about what it is to be human. After reading and taking notes then re-read or reflect on the notes. I have books full of notes on books I’ve read but when I look back I realise I forgot so much of what seemed relevant by not taking time to re-read the notes I had made and review the book. There’s the risk of moving on to the next insightful book without having fully taken in the message from the last! So the 20 minutes reading could include returning to the book we’ve just read, or taking time to reflect on the notes we made.

The app I read the book I’m summarising here is a useful place to start. If you would like to read more details of this morning routine the book is called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod and is available for free on an App called Blinkist. All of the books are also available as an audio book. You can browse the books for free for three days then it is a paid subscription. There’s a wide selection of titles. You don’t see the whole book, but instead read a detailed summary of the key points. So you get the central message without any thing extra but if you like it you can purchase the book elsewhere and read it all!

ii) Writing for five – ten minutes in the morning to highten self awareness. This can take various forms.  There’s The Artist Way, which I have never done but friends all speak highly of.  It consists in part of keeping a morning journal to help connect with your creativity. I keep a dream journal, so spend five minutes each morning writing down my dreams from the night before. Or you may like to write out a plan for the day. The days that I do this I tend to be much more engaged with what  my intentions are for the day and less prone to drift. It can be even more useful to do this the night before, taking a few minutes to consider what your intentions are for the next day, especially anything you’re looking forward to – then your mind is able to ponder this as you sleep and dream and is more prepared for the next day, helping in the process of jumping out of bed ready to enjoy the day rather than snuggling back down.

The suggestion in this book is to keep a morning journal reflecting on the previous day. Dividing the page in half or using two facing pages label one ‘lessons learnt’, the other ‘new commitments’. This helped Elrod to feel more grateful for his life through focusing on the things he had already learnt as well as his goals for the future. By reflecting on lesson learnt it helped him to learn from his past and by looking at future goals it committed him to the changes he wanted to make in his life. The change might be being patient with how things are! It doesn’t have to be a huge goal, but one that feels right for you.

To help with this he suggests having an accountability buddy, someone whom we tell our intentions to and with whom we check in to say how we have met them, or not.  I’ll reflect more on this next week.

 

Opening to Joy – The Path to Awakening

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

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

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

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

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

To listen to a version of this click here

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

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

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

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

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

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What happens when we feel out of relationship with another or a group? Healing hatred through love.

The theme over recent weeks has been “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. Last week I reflected on how the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching. The Loving Kindness practice was taught in response to some monks who were having difficulties with some tree spirits in the forrest grove where they had set up their residence. In the time of the Buddha people still believed that all of nature was inhabited by spirits and divinities so it was not unusual for the Buddhist scriptures to describe meetings between the Buddha or his monks and various nature spirits who lived in the tress or streams of the wilderness where the monks made their home. In an age when we like to show how much the Buddha’s teaching matches modern scientific findings there is little reference to this! And for many of us it may mean very little. But the story illustrates an important principle so is worth listing to even if considered a fable or symbolic.

The significance of the Buddha teaching his disciples to extend love to the tree spirits rather than feel resentment or anger illustrates the Buddha’s teaching which I reflects on in last week’s email: “hatred does not cease through hatred but by love”. He did not teach the monks to destroy or annihilate the tree spirits, but to radiate love to them, the very beings that were trying to frighten and disturb the monks in their meditation. This attitude is very contrary to many of our human instincts, which on seeing another as an enemy or obstruction leads to a wish to escape from them or anhiliate them.

And now we come back to the 21st Century and neuroscience! I was watching the excellent BBC documentary about the brain recently and in episode 7 it covered the very troubling and difficult issue of why we hate, and how genocide or inter-group violence can happen. What happens to a group of people that causes them to stop seeing another group as humans and instead be able to unleash untold misery and harm on their fellow human beings? What might we learn about our own individual tendency towards hatred and how to own it but not act on it by looking at what happens on a massive social scale when humans fall out of relationship?

The programme followed a number of experiments that were using brain imaging to observe what happens in the brain in different situations.

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The Pain Matrix

In the first experiment they looked at what happens when we feel excluded from a group. The experiment was conducted online by having three people play a game. Two of the participants were secretly part of the experiment so only the third person was actually being observed. At first the game of online ‘frisbee’ included all of the participants, but after a while the two who were part of the experiment threw it only to themselves and excluded the third. As this happened the brain scan of this third person started to show the activation of the pain centre located at the front of the brain. This is something normally associated with physical pain, but they found that the brain also experiences this exactly the same if it is a mental event arising form the feeling of being excluded.

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From this they deduced that if the experience of being excluded is felt as pain, then as human beings it is natural that we will look for a way of feeling included – by looking for a group of like minded people by whom we are accepted. This is great for our own sense of self-worth, but what happens when our group then defines itself by making another group ‘other’: less worthy, impure, unholy, or to to be despised?

The Loss of Empathy

The next experiment looked at exactly this. What would happen when people identifying with a specific group saw a syringe needle enter various hands? Each hand was labled with a group identity:

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People who identified with one of these groups then watched as the needle entered the hand of each person. The usual empathy response was that the brain would recognise that another was experiencing pain and there would be activity in this area of the brain, shown here by the sudden peak of activity:

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This is what happened when there were no labels. But as soon as the hands were labeled something significant happened. On viewing the needle go into the hand of someone who was in their ‘out group’ participants showed no activation in the empathy centre of the brain. The blue line shows the lack of activation compared to the green line which shows their response to the in-group.

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Their brain was literally no longer registering the other person as another fellow human being who was suffering and for whom they might feel empathy. Instead they were a blank, something rather than someone. Even the atheists identified more with fellow atheists and less with the other humans! So it is not just an issue of religion, but of identifying with a group and then not empathising with those belonging to other groups or groups who hold opinions contrary to your own.

The findings of this experiment were confirmed when a group of people were shown random images of people, including one of a homeless person. When people they looked at images of various people a certain area of the brain lit up connected with recognising fellow human beings:

But on looking a the homeless person there was a marked reduction in this activation in many of the participants:

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The top right hand image shows the lack of activation in the brain when looking at the homeless person compared to viewing other images of people. This showed that for these participants on the experiment they had learnt not to see homeless people as other humans: they no longer recognised them as a person, but could walk past them as a thing.

“Love thine Enemy”

Having looked at these experiments the programme went on to surmise that it is this process that is at work when two groups oppose each other in war or conflict. Having established your ‘in-group’ in order to feel safe and not feel excluded, this group may often be defined by an ‘out-group’ – those who hold opposite views and opinions, who worship different Gods, or worship the same God but with different rituals and dogma. If there is then conflict between these two groups the brain is capable of literally switching off from recognising the members of the ‘out-group’ as other humans, and instead see them as objects. And it is from this that the atrocities we see throughout history and right up to this present day can take place. When we no longer see another as a fellow human being, or feel their pain, then we are capable of doing anything to them.

This is where we return to the Four Divine Abiding meditations and the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha did not demonise the tree spirits, he did not say to hate them as they were obstructing the monks in their meditation and were ‘enemies’. Instead he taught the monks to be patient, forbearing and loving towards them. It is the same message that Christ shared, although historically this part of his teaching has tended to be conveniently forgotten by many throughout history!

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” Mathew 5:44

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Luke 6:29

What these teachers are telling us is that hatred does not cease through further expressions of hatred. Hatred ceases through love, and love enable us to see the ‘other’ as a fellow human being. The third stage of the loving kindness practice gives us the opportunity to locate the people who are our ‘out-group’. For us this might not be due to racial or religious distinctions, but by their position in society or in relation to how we see ourselves and our values and how we then despise those who hold different values or beliefs.

Learning to make the wish that others may be happy (the Loving Kindness Practice) have empathy for all who suffer (the Compassion practice) and rejoice in the good fortune of others (Sympathetic Joy practice) counteracts any tendency to feel contempt for some or lack of compassion for others. The Equanimity practice, the fourth of the Divine abiding meditations, encourages us to see that we all inherit the consequences of our own actions, so it is only for us to focus on our actions and wish others well, not to judge or condemn others. These four divine abiding meditations encourage us to explore seeing all those whom we know as simply human beings wanting to be happy and well, who fear pain and sorrow – just as we do.

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Learning to own my own hatred rather than project it out onto another

When I first learnt the Loving Kindness practice I had to learn to love my step-father. I saw him as bigoted and intolerant in his racism and homophobia. I hated him for his intolerance. Until finally I realised that I was simply hating that which I was feeling myself! I was intolerant of his intolerance and used this to justify feelings of hatred towards him, even hoping he would die. On seeing this the work became more internal. I couldn’t change him, but I could change how I was reacting and relating to him. As a result of this process I felt much happier. He also changed and softened in his outlook as we were not in conflict but in dialogue.

If you have someone or some group you know are your ‘out-group’ I invite you to explore holding them in the third stage of the Loving Kindess practice. Learn to recognise them as a fellow human being, with their own hopes and fears, their desire to be happy just as you wish to be happy and their sorrow at loss and pain just as you feel sorrow of these things. In this way we can create an opening for peace in our heart. And that is the only part of the world for which we have any direct responsibility. But as we plant the seed of peace in our heart it may grow and bloom and the scent reach others, influencing their thoughts and actions – and in tis way we may indeed create a kinder world. In the end it may be that you find that, as Jung says, those who annoy you shows you what we need to see in yourself.

To down load a guided version of the Loving Kindness practice click here

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Ruby Wax on Mindfulness

Today I’ve attached a talk by Ruby Wax.  I went to see her show when she was in London recently and this is an earlier version of it. She is a fantastic proponent of mindfulness as she does not fit the stereotype at all! I was at a mindfulness conference a few years ago where she was the final speaker.  All of the previous speakers had had an appropriate tone, demeanour and register – calm, softly spoken, speaking form stillness. Then Ruby Wax came on! A few people were late coming in as there had been a break and she looked at them and said “what the F…k, …..”and made a joke about being late! There’s an authenticity to her presentation as I feel the rawness of the place she is speaking from. She is not pretending to be fixed or to be free from the struggles and mental anguish that led to her depression. But she speaks eloquently of the pain and of how mindfulness provides her with a tool to be with it.

As a friend of mine once said of himself “I’m a mess in progress”. Sometimes it helps to hear from someone who is at ease with the mess that they are and is able to share form that place without their inner critic getting in the way and telling them to shut up and put on a good front. The sad thing in life is that we all show our Facebook personas to the world: happy, successful, full of fun and interesting activities. But this is only a part of our life and by this collective act of not sharing from the place where we struggle we are all left feeling that our dark place is a strange anomaly only felt by us. In fact it is what we all feel, it’s what unites us – the fear of our sense of lack, our fear of failure, the thoughts that say we are no good or are only of worth if we keep succeeding and being the best – it’s this that we all share and keep  hidden. The result is that we can feel so alone with this secret, and it’s a delight to hear someone like Ruby Wax openly laughing at it and showing how she found her way through by using mindfulness.

I hope you enjoy this, her humour is distinct and may not be for everyone but if you listen her overall message there’s a lot of learning in this half hour.

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