On Tuesday afternoon, I headed to Sheffield Hallam University for the start of a 6-week Mindfulness Based Life Enhancement Course with teacher John Darwin. After a little confusion about whether I needed to go up or down the stairs, I found the multi-faith centre & settled down for the 1st session. We were informed the most important aspect of mindfulness is not to try to achieve something but just to do it and see what happens. The outcomes take care of themselves, so let go of intention or purpose and simply practice. In order to meditate, you are given a choice of seated positions, such as sitting crossed-legged or on a small bench with a mat under the knees. If sat on a chair, the feet should be placed firmly or rooted to feel a connection with the ground. My choice of mudra or hand position was to place them palms down on my knees with the thumb & the forefinger touching. Then, a bell chimes at the start & end of each meditation, a delightful sound that instantly puts me in the mood.
During the initial 20min sitting meditation, we could choose whether to focus on breathing within the nose, chest or abdomen and I enjoyed the corresponding visualisation of the ebb & flow of the waves in the sea. John instructed us to bring awareness to thoughts as they pass through the space of the mind and eventually disappear but try not to engage with them, “Don’t offer them tea.” Floating clouds in a clear, blue sky seemed preferable initially to projecting thoughts onto a cinema screen but overall, I struggled to visualise mental events in a separate, objective manner. However, he emphasised how thoughts are perfectly fine & instead of beating yourself up, gently congratulate yourself for noticing your monkey mind has wandered because it means you have come back to the present moment. Finally, he asked us to focus on why we had joined the course, what we want from these sessions.I thought about how I would like to finally find some peace of mind, a sense of freedom but felt teary as this seems like an impossible dream in the face of reality.
Apart from having to balance on one leg, which I find stressful rather than relaxing, the mindful movement activity was wonderful. We were told to stand in mountain posture, feet hip distance apart, arms by our sides and to imagine a silken cord or thread attached to the top of the head gently pulling it up. Then there was stretching, twisting & turning while imagining to hold a ball & weaving figure of eights with your hips. Later in the afternoon, there were also some leg raises, shoulder rolling & dropping, head turning and body twisting in a seated position. Examining the raisin was an interesting experience. The process of eating incredibly slowly (observing, smelling, listening, tasting, chewing & finally swallowing) was surreal. I’ve been struggling with food issues lately, comfort eating, feeling guilty for bingeing etc so learning to savour my meals is an important goal. It was rather difficult to view an object as if you are an alien or child as you will always make associations from your memory and knowledge but I thought the raisin resembled the ridges & folds of a human brain or the wall of a cave.
During the 1st attempt of the body scan (C04), lying on the floor in corpse pose (Shavasana) with palms upwards, my limbs felt cool & airy whereas the 2nd time, in my bed, they felt warm & energised. In the former, I also managed to utilise the irritating noise of a car alarm by breathing to its rhythm and imagining my knees & heart were flashing lights. John suggested we allow distractions to become part of the practice. He also encouraged us to go beyond simply being aware of the elbow, to actually “be the elbow!” After my 3rd attempt, I’m not sure whether I prefer the simple (C05) or more elaborate version but I was aware there was a tingling sensation like pins & needles in my hands. The solemn, foreboding announcement of “the genitals” made me burst into childish laughter. I struggled to breathe in through my foot & out through my thigh or hip and vice versa. (Along within through the fingers & out through the shoulder.) That motion felt disjointed, preferring to let the breath flow around my leg like a current & out through my foot again. I also became aware of how itches & pains are frustrating when you are trying to keep still. They force you to scratch or wriggle, interrupting your experience but maybe it is just another niggle that needs to be accepted. I drifted away at times but found if you have have managed to concentrate enough on each body part (being aware of any tightness or softness), you feel cleansed & refreshed all over. I tend to have a long, rewarding stretch afterwards too.
During the loving kindness meditation (101), one of the Four Immeasurables, John asked two questions: what would you love to receive from the world in order to have a happy, meaningful & fulfilling life? And none of us live in absolute isolation, we cannot help but influence those around us through both our actions or inaction. We are making an impact on the world whether we wish to or not so what kind of a mark do you wish to make? Then 4 phrases are recited: “May I be happy, well & at peace; may I be open to things just as they are; may I experience the world opening to me just as I am; may I welcome whatever arises.” To be honest, I found some resentment & jealousy creeping in towards others who appear to be carefree & content while I cannot escape debilitating mental & physical afflictions. “They do not need positive energy sending,” I thought and so found it easier to focus on one person that I know is struggling than my entire family, friends & loved ones. Afterwards, the teacher rounded off by discussing how you can strengthen your mental muscle through both formal & informal mindfulness. Try to establish a routine (morning, evening, whenever.) And remember some meditations are good, some are bad.”Don’t sit waiting for something to happen, just sit.”
Several suggestions were made for homework including mindful activity. John had quoted Thich Nhat Hanh, “Do not do dishes to get them clean, do dishes to do dishes,” which reminded me of another zen expression, “Before enlightenment, laundry; after enlightenment, laundry.” So clean your teeth, to clean your teeth, truly focus on what you are doing. I have since discovered examples of my automatic pilot include shovelling food into my mouth & sitting awkwardly on my chair & slouching over the laptop. When I notice, I try to sit up straight & push my tailbone into the back as instructed to do when meditating. John said, “Ask yourself, is it useful to be operating on automatic pilot or am I missing something?” And I’ve started trying to be more mindful while eating, easing in gradually by still watching TV but trying not to do anything else like checking emails or browse the net. It’s interesting how strong the pull is to multi-task. Closing my eyes seems to help as depriving my sense of sight makes my taste buds stronger. And I managed to lengthen the time taken to eat a packet of Malteasers by sucking instead of chewing or biting. When walking, instead of storming from A to B, looking straight ahead or at the pavement, I’ve tried to focus on the left or right side, on passing bricks, leaves, flowers & architecture, to appreciate the beauty of nature. I have been looking up at the sky & trees, noticing the smell of cut grass & houses previously unseen despite passing them hundreds of times.
I used voice memos on my phone to record the session, so throughout the week, have been re-listening to hear things I missed when my attention wandered. I always thought my voice was quite childlike & shrill but it actually sounded quite pleasant and I was not as incoherent as I imagined. I realised this is a perfect example of my negativity bias, a reminder of how the beliefs we have about ourselves might not necessarily be true, if we are able to stand back & view things objectively. Further observations include how listening to a simple guided meditation mp3 (C16) while lying down felt like a psychedelic trip. I was experiencing dizziness as if I was about to slip into unconsciousness in the prolonged silences, which suggests that sitting up, along with a continuous voice would keep me alert & sane. I considered the 3min breathing space (C08) to be too short & rushed but liked the sequence of noting thoughts, then feelings (acknowledging any discomfort or unpleasantness) by saying “Ah there you are, OK, that’s how it is right now.” Then becoming aware of any physical sensations (tension etc) and finally, focussing on the breath, rising & expanding, falling & contracting. John described this exercise as following the shape of an hour glass. Stage 1: recognising everything that is without preference (thoughts, feelings, sensations), stage 2: narrowing down to the breath & stage 3: expanding out into the world around us.
During the 2nd session, the combination of a 20min body scan involving the rhythm of the heart & breath together, directly followed by some lying yoga-esque mindful movement was fabulous. We were instructed to take into account any parts of the body that needed special care and I noticed some tension in my neck. Exercises included: pelvic tilts, moving from neutral to imprint (pushing the lower back into the mat); forming the bridge, by raising the body between the knees & shoulders, then rolling down vertebra by vertebra; bringing the knees up and rocking & twisting from side to side. Then, on all fours, we performed the cat, arching the back while lowering the head, then lifting the head while concaving the back; the swan, a comfortable, resting posture in which the buttocks come down onto the ankles, stretching hands ahead out in front (or we could choose to move our arms next to our legs in child pose); the table top balance, stretching out opposite legs and arms (you could also reach back & grab the foot to form a curve); threading the needle, lifting the right arm up & through between the left arm & left knee and finally, the cobra, lying on the front, pushing into the hands & lifting the head.
It seemed easier to meditate in class because it was a designated time & space set aside. At home, I experimented sitting in my armchair crossed legs but they were constricted and my lower back was not properly supported even with a cushion, so then I considered using my desk chair which counters these issues. But both of these seating areas feel like they are already dedicated to other activities. My original assumption was you should not need any apparatus to meditate, you should be able to do it anywhere but now I am considering investing in a small, sloping bench as they are so comfortable and it would provide a distinctive place to assist with motivation. I could position it in front of my window where a golden Buddha ornament sits like a shrine. However, there is a choice between a folding or fixed leg stool and I am struggling to decide which would be more effective. I only have one room so a compactable one makes sense but would it be too easy to put away & forget? Whereas the fixed leg would always be ready for action and a constant reminder of an aspiration to commit to meditation. A turning point for John was that after a year, he could no longer not meditate. “Practice is never perfect. Practice is always practice. It is interesting to notice how you are reacting, it is all part of the richness.” Anchors such as the breath, thoughts, sounds, movement etc enable us to keep focus. We were instructed to tense our fists and see how we feel (strong, empowered, tense, angry),then extend the arms out openly (giving, unfolding, connected, receiving, welcoming, gentle) and then bring the hands to the heart (loving, comforting, calming, protective, snuggly). This exercise was to illustrate how the mind and body interrelate. Certain positions create things in our mind & tension affects the body.
Then there was a 15min compassion meditation (102). I become emotional whenever I am asked to cultivate this towards myself. It is comforting & soothing to be nurturing & gentle to yourself for a change. We were asked, “How long have you been struggling to free yourself from anxiety and dissatisfaction? What tendencies of your own mind and behaviour have repeatedly got in your way?” It’s not a time for self-judgment, dismay or apathy but reappraisal. Let the aspiration arise: “May I be free of the true causes of worry and sadness.” Imagine the serenity and joy of a balanced mind closely in tune with reality. Quietly repeat: “May I be free of suffering, harm and disturbance; may I accept things just as they are; may I experience the world accepting me just as I am; may I serve whatever arises.”Then you are invited to direct attention to a loved one who is struggling with physical or psychological stress, followed by a person who is causing suffering; experience their difficulties and will them to escape the mental afflictions at the root of their destructive behaviour. I found this rather a difficult task; it is hard to forgive or see another’s perspective if they have treated you cruelly. Finally, we are encouraged to expand our field of awareness to embrace everyone in the room, each with their own hopes, fears, aspirations and yearnings, then reaching out to the community and then the world, attending to those who suffer whether from hunger, thirst, poverty, the miseries of war, social injustice of the imbalances or afflictions of their own minds. The phrase, may I serve whatever arises, is about serving others; compassion involves a recognition of the suffering of others combined with a desire to take action. I probably preferred this meditation because it featured what I already felt compelled to do with loving kindness, focus on one individual.
The remainder of the afternoon consisted of mindful walking & smiling. Shad, the co-facilitator started by instructing us to tip forward so our weight was in our toes, then back onto our heels, then centre ourselves, the feet firmly planted and shift the weight from right to left.Then within the circle, to turn counter-clockwise & begin walking incredibly slowly. “Breathe in as the foot comes forward & out as it heads to the ground.”I was dreadful, nearly falling over due to my atrocious balance. I have pondered before how if I was to give walking too much focus, I may forget how to do it altogether & stagger awkwardly.I found my moves became more balletic because I needed to find a way to utilise the length of time & regain a sense of control.Shad said thoughts may arise such as, “Why isn’t the person in front of me walking faster?” and everyone laughed. “As with breathing, just bring your attention back to the physical sensations of walking, your muscles etc. Which part of the foot moves first? How does it place itself on the ground?” Then we were instructed to speed up & I felt a sense of relief as it was torturous.
The smiling meditation seemed surreal as I imagined a pair of smiling lips travel from my mind, to the corner of each eye and into my heart but I liked the line, “Sense your eyes floating gently as in a pool of warm water.” Finally, John concluded the session with an engaging poem called ‘Love After Love’ by Derek Walcott:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Our homework for the 2nd week included Savouring: The daily vacation activity. Choose something that you want to savour for 20mins, the same thing several times or different ones & write a diary. Plan & look forward to it, then set aside worries, concerns & pressing responsibilities and try to avoid distractions. Rediscover and reawaken all 5 senses. Also, record a pleasant event each day in your calendar; it may be the vacation but it might be something that just happens. I found this a tad confusing & ended up combining the two. Activities included a meal & drinks with friends, short excursions around my neighbourhood, eating raspberry ripple ice-cream, a candlelit shower & a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Was I aware of the positive feelings while the event was happening? Sometimes. I was probably more conscious of my negative feelings too though. There is usually a sense of freedom whenever I leave the house due to leaving lengthy, obsessive compulsive rituals behind. I begin to relax & unwind, to be playful & sociable but there is still a level of self-consciousness about my appearance & a concern about spending money. And when I arrive home, I am usually wired, drained from being so animated & the constant conversation, fretting & analysing everything I have said & done. It takes me a long time to calm down & return to a neutral state; it is easier to be alone.
Whilst listening to music, I endeavoured to do some mindful cleaning as someone had expressed how a boring activity done mindfully was no longer a chore. It is always good to move around rather than constantly sitting and it feels therapeutic as if you are cleansing & organising yourself in the process e.g. tidy house, tidy mind. I also rearranged the furniture, which was hard graft but again there was a sense of satisfaction on completion; I had put things in order, removed the dust, refreshed and revitalised the room. The shower was my reward and I enjoyed the warm water flowing down my back, the glow of the candle and the relaxing aroma of Radox (a reminder to keep using my oil burner). Negative feelings included concern that my hair is going grey & how my belly is bloated but I kept trying to focus on the beauty of my curves instead. I reached the conclusion that distraction or escapism is more conducive to certain forms of exercise or you would struggle to tackle them e.g. stationary bike, cross-trainer. It was easier to be mindful while swimming; watching the movement of my arms, the ripples of the water, listening to gentle, splashing sounds and sensing the endorphins being released.
YSP is always uplifting, the combination of art & nature, fresh air, blue sky, green grass. And daytime activities are more difficult than night so it feels like an accomplishment if I am up, ready & out at a reasonable time. I noted some interesting vibrations under foot on a honeycombed pathway and the detail (objects like tools & dolls) embedded in the surface of one of the rabbit sculptures, which I had failed to notice before due to just focussing on the whole, albeit impressive, structure. When smiling, I was conscious of my developing crows feet & sticky out teeth and annoyed that I was not allowed to take photographs in the main gallery, realising this is an important part of my experience. There is an assumption that a person should put down technology to truly live in the moment but a phone or camera can help to capture & immortalise it. Without that ability, I oddly felt as if I had not absorbed the artwork as much as usual. It enables me to look in-depth and study the angles & composition of the pieces. And then afterwards, I will blog or share my pictures on social media, some of the methods people use in order to express themselves, store up memories, reflect and relive pleasant events.
We had also been told about the ancient sutra of the two darts and advised to watch for our 2nd dart. When something unpleasant happens to us outside of our control, causing mental or physical pain, that is the first dart but then we ourselves fire a 2nd dart internally, which is almost instantaneous. We start to ruminate and this causes us much suffering. You cannot do anything about the 1st dart but you can about the 2nd; you need to create space between the stimulus and the response. One example could be how after expressing enthusiasm about going on a date, the guy ended up ignoring me and I began questioning why and thinking how I am flawed, high-maintenance, unloveable etc. “Come on! It would not have worked anyway, he is a snowboarder & you are a hermit!” Albert Ellis who created Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy developed the ABCDE model. A is for Action (something occurs, an event, situation, sensation or memory), B is for Belief (our interpretation) and C is for consequence (how we react or respond). Instead of jumping to conclusions, we need to explore D for Dispute (Is there an another reason why this happened?) and then initiate E for Energisation (activate the alternative, choose a different path).
The 3rd session began with a mindfulness of sounds & thoughts meditation (C07), which made me consider my anchor of choice may be sounds. My mind seemed more focussed than usual. I jokingly commented how when meditating in silence, I am paranoid that my stomach will rumble or I will break wind but those noises may be quite welcome in this instance. Someone sneezed and I heard a loud, droning noise above which sounded like a aeroplane taking off, demonstrating how difficult it was not to try to interpret the sounds and merely regard them as sensations in pitch and tone.During the thoughts section, I started visualising the profile of a head with a brain like the shape of a cloud and I endeavoured to put the thoughts in there & make them disappear but not hugely successfully.John also read a poem called Keeping Quiet byPablo Neruda, which was amusing because throughout, there was a construction worker banging away in the background. Again, I thought such noise would have been welcome earlier.
As usual, there was some mindful movement, which is very important as we are trying to integrate the mind & body and appreciate our physicality. “The best way to keep your mind active is to keep your body active,” said John, “So try to add it to your routine.” This time, there was some stretching down to our toes & rolling back up again, floppy dog / doll and warrior pose. Interestingly, I participated in a warrior doll craft workshop this week (a variant of worry dolls) so inner-strength & empowerment has been a common theme. With yoga exercises, breathing out usually occurs when moving & breathing in when holdingbut it can be reversed if it feels unnatural. (Breathe in drop head, breathe out lift head, breathe in head back, breathe out head level) And it is non-competitive so you just do what you are capable of. Later on, while in seated mountain posture, we imagined a large vat of soup in front of us and stirred it with a ladle. “Now take your left hand in the right & circle the right thumb anti-clockwise in your left palm” and vice versa. While we were busy massaging our shoulders and moving around the thumb & fingers on each hand, John told the story of how someone asked a monk, “Can I smoke while I’m meditating?” “Certainly not, but you can meditate while you smoke” and suggested we do some mindful movement while doing something else. He reiterated how the purpose of the course was to enhance your already existing ability to be mindful or kind and compassionate and was intended to be compatible with any belief system.
The empathetic joy meditation is about rejoicing in the good fortune of others and you are instructed to bring to mind someone who has a sense of good cheer & wellbeing (a happy disposition), followed by someone who inspires you with their kindness, virtue & wisdom. “May I enjoy the activities of life itself; may I enjoy things just as they are; may I experience the world taking joy in all that I do; may I know what to do whatever arises.” Joy can be contagious & you can double it by enjoying what others have done as well as your own achievements. An interesting idea that developed from studying the 4 Immeasurables is of the near enemies & far enemies. The far enemies are the obvious opposites such as hatred or anger for loving kindness, cruelty for compassion, jealousy or envy for joy and partiality or resentment for equanimity. Whereas the near enemies are deceptively subtle substitutes. The near enemy of compassion is pity, an alleged synonym but which actually has a condescending, superior tone instead of a sense of equality. For loving kindness, it is conditional love, for equanimity, it is indifference. With empathetic joy, one example is schadenfreude, whichliterally means ‘harm-joy’ and involves satisfaction in someone else’s misfortune, taking pleasure when they get it wrong or mess up. It is featured harmlessly in most comedy shows but if you notice you are doing it in real life, you may wish to address it.
For homework, we were invited to do the optimism activity, looking at a plane journey from the viewpoint of a pessimist etc and to write an unpleasant events calendar. Studies have proved that optimists are more successful, healthier & even live longer than pessimists. We all have a natural set point but you can shift it. It is important to distinguish between positive psychology & positive thinking, which states as long as you think positively everything will be fine e.g. beliefs such as a bicycle has been stolen because the rider has been thinking negatively in tying it up. The former involves exploring & rearranging the balance between the positive & negative. We cannot rid ourselves of negativity but we can possibly challenge it & change our relationship with it. It is useful to notice how we respond or react to bad things. We can recognise pain but ease up on the suffering we inflict upon ourselves.I swear more than I realised when confronted with road works or technological issues. My computer is currently operating at a snail’s pace, which gives me a headache and it is particularly frustrating as I have been feeling more productive of late. Perhaps, it is another sign to quit multi-tasking since my laptop is no longer capable.
A conversation in groups about our progress yielded validation from a 2nd timer that it was acceptable to lie down while meditating. However, during a couple of seated meditations this week, I still felt woozy and nauseous, which is worrying; maybe a result of low blood pressure, a virus or an inner ear problem. On occasion, I have also felt my heartbeat throbbing in my head, which is disconcerting. So, I have been restless, tense and less dedicated to the formal practice but generally more mindful in daily activities and I am aware when I am not doing it, which I guess means I am doing it. Recently when walking at night, I decided to pay attention to lights and sounds since vision is impaired. The hum of streetlights & air conditioning vents and the trees looked pretty lit up in yellow and orange. And I have started looking out the window and people watching for a few minutes while cleaning my teeth. I can often hear children playing too as there is a school nearby. It is not a magic wand, it takes perseverance. Like going to the gym, which benefits your general health & fitness, you can build up your mental muscle, which filters into everyday life.
The 4th session began with a sitting meditation featuring the reading of a poem called ‘The Guesthouse’ by Rumi, which we were advised to listen to in the spirit of accepting emotions without trying to change them. “Let the discomfort come & go as it pleases like a guest in your own home.” And this time, when John instructed us to imagine our thoughts as clouds in a clear blue sky, I was drawn to view them blowing about to match the turbulent wind outside.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
In the midterm reflection, we were asked to think about what we had learned from the 1st half and asked if we were willing to re-commit for the 2nd half? “Recognise that growth & change are non-linear.” Let go of expectations for the 2nd half based on your experience of the 1st. It is a new beginning, a fresh opportunity to be fully engaged and alive. Shad suggested that just as you bring your mind back when it wanders in meditation, keep gently bringing yourself back on track. Each moment is a chance to start again; progress happens slowly, gradually. My neighbours & I joked about how we are being trained and conditioned by the sound of the bell like Pavlov’s dog (sometimes it startles me). And we discussed how a few extra peaceful seconds after each of the mp3s would be welcome before the next one begins playing and that a singing bowl meditation would be a treat.
During the equanimity meditation, we were encouraged to savour the breath as something that connects us. There is a powerful ancient Tibetan practice called Tonglen, which means ‘giving & receiving’ and is performed in relation to someone who is ill. The exercise involves taking in their pain & suffering in the form of a contaminated, black cloud of smoke, instantly dissolving and transforming it in your heart centre into white, clean, pure air and releasing love, warmth and energy. You are not holding it in (nothing gets stuck) but acting like an air purifier. However, if you feel uncomfortable or blocked, you are strongly advised to let it go (never force it) & return to normal breathing or adapt your technique, do the opposite, breathe clean air in and impure out instead. Equanimity means calmness and composure, even tempered, especially in difficult situations so the 4 phrases to recite were: “May I be free from preference & prejudice; may I know things just as they are; may I experience the world knowing me just as I am; may I see into whatever arises.”
We were then asked to imagine a person in front of us, open ourselves to their pain and form the intention to ease their suffering in whatever way we can. At first, I pictured myself, which was a comforting image but became too confusing when it came to breathing in & transmuting my own negativity. As usual, you are then required to expand your awareness and encouraged to visualise a sphere of radiant white light in your heart, spreading it evenly in all directions to all persons, soothing all who are distressed and sending healing, happiness and wellbeing. “Shifting circumstances bring us together and also cause us to part. Recognise each person is fundamentally like yourself.” To conclude, there was a 25 min meditation featuring all 4 Immeasurables, whose principles interlink and mutually support each other.
We were asked to reflect on our unpleasant events, to determine if there were any patterns, any particular types that have been prominent. Has it been a typical week or unusual? Have there been loads or little? What have you learnt? How can you cope better? It is useful to process and put things in proportion. When dealing with difficult people, “Try implementing the techniques of the 4 Immeasurables,” suggested John. Nothing majorly awful happened to me but unsurprisingly for a person with body dysmorphic disorder, there were a fair few incidents that triggered appearance concerns. Weirdly enough, I was reluctant to include my obsessive compulsive rituals because despite being horrendous and exhausting, they are the norm. If you have ever seen the film ‘Disturbing Behaviour’, I am basically the girl in the asylum constantly applying make-up telling herself she must be pretty. It is like being in a trance, trapped or frozen in the mirror so maybe I am operating in automatic pilot but in 20 years of fighting this battle, I am yet to figure out how to break free. Bodily sensations often include aching shoulders & numb feet from sitting in the same position for hours. And there is a sense of sadness and frustration as thoughts include, “This is ridiculously out of control; it is a life half-lived.” One CBT technique I could revisit is the impartial observer, an attempt to switch from magnifying glass eyes and perhaps forcing myself to take breaks so I can return with a fresh perspective.
For homework, it was recommended we keep a gratitude journal, to write down 2 or 3 things each day. And a ritual people commonly use to express gratitude is to say grace before they eat so try reciting something before each meal like, “May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh Another suggestion is to write an email or letter to someone saying thank you and read it aloud to them. Things that I noted and appreciated were food in my belly, a roof over my head, a warm bed to sleep and recuperate in, walking in the sunshine, admiring & taking photos of graffiti, midnight strolls and sitting in my armchair looking at my Buddha ornament on the window sill with the trees in the background (sometimes with a lit candle). I just wonder if the list gets too repetitive, it may have an adverse effect, implying you are boring but routine and simple pleasures are essential to mindfulness, right?
As for the formal practice, there was still a distracting throbbing in my head but it was actually John’s electronic voice reverberating so turning down the volume helped. In equanimity (I04), I could see how it was possible to detach yourself from the loved one but it was a challenge not to blame the foe for wrongdoing. As for the stranger, it was difficult to decide who to choose. They seemed like a non-person because you have no strong feelings towards them; at least you are passionate towards those you adore or dislike. For my nature sanctuary, during the lifescape meditation (I07), a place of safety and comfort, I pictured a wonderful Japanese garden featuring a red bridge and door with pink blossom falling from an overhanging tree. And I loved the concluding statement, “Notice your thoughts & feelings, allowing yourself to be just as you are.” I considered (I05) to be too stark & simplified and strangely featured an irritating high-pitched shrill, hardly conducive to feeling peaceful.
The objective of the day of practice was to nurture ourselves & focus inwardly. We were instructed to be in silence & try to avoid eye contact for about 5 hours but unfortunately the dreaded lurg prevented me from going. I usually beat myself up if I cannot go to something important due to mental or physical illness but this time, my attitude was more accepting (it is what it is) & hopefully, I can participate in the next one. Interestingly, I experimented using the opposite of Tonglen to try to expel the sickness from my body & it did seem to help a little to clear my head & blocked nose. And instead of merely accepting bodily discomfort, I decided to move from my stillness and massage areas of tension such as my lower back & neck. I wondered if ingesting the black smoke was responsible in the 1st place but I reckon it was to do with being rundown, overwhelmed & staying up all night to hear the depressing results of the general election. Now I have the fear & am fretting about the future, which is distracting me from being present. If only the Green Party were in power implementing a citizens income in which we were free from slavery, having to earn a living, the stigma of benefits & allowed to choose how to spend our time (learn, work or play). How is it possible to practice mindful techniques when faced with bleak, crippling reality? I need to make some decisions & take action to feel more positive again.
During the 5th session, there was an exchanging chairs exercise in order to experience viewing the room from a different perspective and we were asked to consider whether we tend to stay put (attachment) or explore new places. “Is this a seat you have chosen often or a different one? Why?” Reasons given were being considerate of friends’ preferred seats, difficulty turning the head, feeling claustrophobic so needing to be near the door and wanting to be away from the front when not leading a group as in their job or career. For some reason, I just felt more comfortable on the right side of the room and seemed to mediate better. Interestingly, I did not even consider sitting in the teachers’ chairs; they were unconsciously out of bounds & those who ended up in them complained they were uncomfortable being the focal point. “Recognise these are simply patterns, we can be at home wherever we are… Where am I in my life? Where am I going?”
Then, there was an active listening exercise. I tried hard to listen and not think of what I was going to talk about, which is a common occurrence in all conversations. When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned how self-deprecating I can be, while continuing to criticise myself for being self absorbed and wrapped up in my own problems. However, I do try to help people in little ways like offering emotional support & encouragement rather than helping them in big practical ways. My partner and I both felt compelled to fill the void of silence whereas others spoke slower, knowing they would be heard & taken seriously. We found it difficult not to interject when we saw each other struggling and so used more exaggerated ‘pantomime’ facial expressions to convey sympathy, reassurance or acknowledgement. I felt self-conscious because my voice seemed quite loud as people appeared to speak quieter & more deliberately. It seemed everyone had trouble holding back from commenting. If we jump in too quick, we may hinder or distract others from what they actually want to say. We want to fix people, offer solutions. Listening is an underrated skill.
To complement, the mountain meditation (C13) during the day of practice, we had a guided lake meditation (C14), lying down to resemble its form. “A lake embodies the receptivity of water, the capacity to stay in touch with all the changes on its surface while remaining calm and quiet at its depths.” Come rain, wind or snow, the lake receives it acceptingly, without resistance or struggle. We seek to nurture and embody these aspects; the strength to deal in peace & tranquility with challenging events; to become like the undisturbed waters. Picture the most beautiful lake you can imagine with green vegetation, maybe tall trees around the shore. You are nourished & soothed by a beautiful stretch of crystal clear blue water. The windless surface is smooth without ripples, like a mirror reflecting everything around it, the sky, the clouds, the landscape. A breeze stirs up waves, reflections disappear. Similarly thoughts may trouble your mind but deep within you remain unaffected. They are unimportant, passive & fleeting. Imagine you are alone in a boat or floating safely & effortlessly on your back and feel comfortably at ease. Let thoughts drift away like the impermanent reflections of birds flying overhead & departing. The water embraces & renews you; bring it inside so you become the lake. You may experience moments of complete stillness or restlessness if the surface is troubled & cloudy but deep down you are unperturbed. Your problems cannot change the essence of what you are. Funnily enough, I could not help but picture a deformed Jason dragging Alice out of the canoe boat into the water.
There are a wide range of meditations, from the entirely silent to visualisation, which requires many words to build up powerful imagery. We can use these to discover our inner nature, recognise our intrinsic ability. Some people are visual, others more verbal. This week involved expressions such as: “As I breathe in, I ground my body; as I breathe out, I settle my mind. Grounded body, settled mind. Aware of my body, I breathe in; relaxing my body, I breathe out. Aware, relax. Breathe in, let the body be still; as you breathe out, let the mind be calm. Still body, calm mind.” John commented how he personally focuses on the physical sensations rather than visualising the breath. “Now you have experienced all the practices, choose your own menu.” Work out what you respond to, what resonates but try other forms too e.g. Pranayama, one of the 8 limbs of yoga, which involves consciously breathing along with alternating tones. Continuing with positive psychology, the theme was forgiveness, towards yourself and others. John suggested you drop a question, like a pebble in a pond and see what bubbles up e.g. who should I be forgiving or what do I need to forgive myself for? We were advised to find aspects you can forgive easily and build it up gradually.
The 15 min self-forgiveness (SC5) involved getting in touch with the feeling of being cared about by someone, an inner protector. I decided to choose a spirit guide rather than a biased person who is possibly tied up in situations needing forgiveness. You are asked to list your good qualities, which are facts not flattery and appreciate yourself. Then think of something small that you are still being tough on yourself about; a thought, an exchange or an action that you came to regret. Recall what happened, the relevant context, history and results. Be open to anything that is hard to face, it may be what is keeping you stuck. “Sort it into 3 parts: the moral faults, the unskillfulness & everything else. The former deserve proportionate guilt, remorse or shame but the latter calls for correction, nothing more so take responsibility for the former & recognise which aspects were a lack of skill.” Finally, acknowledge you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or overreactions of others so let that relief sink in. Now acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, repair things & make a mends. Decide what if anything needs to be done in your heart or out in the world, then resolve to do it. “Listen to the still quiet voice of conscience which is different to the pounding scorn of the critic. Know that what needed learning has been learnt & what needed doing has been done.” Actively forgive yourself & ask others for forgiveness if need be. I changed mine half way through as it was too humiliating to discuss but I recognised how it could be a very valuable exercise in helping to let things go.
To conclude, there was a form of mindful walking created by the Shaolin monks. This involves moving forwards & backwards eight paces as if walking on a tight rope. You have to concentrate in order to coordinate the opposite hands & feet. When moving the right foot forward, you roll the left hand forward and vice versa and when moving the left foot backward, you roll the right hand backward etc. Do not rush, use own rhythm and notice how the body reacts. Amusingly, John suggested doing it at the bus stop. There is strong evidence showing significant changes occur in brains after a long course of mindfulness or meditation. It is important to try to find a way to integrate and embed it into one’s life so it becomes second nature. Regarding the formal practice, a mother superior asked the nuns why do you pray? They responded, “We pray because the bell rang.” Whereas the informal practice makes it so worthwhile, doing everyday things in a more deliberate, meaningful way.
The 6th session began with a reverse body scan led by Shad, starting with the head and moving down through the body. “Regardless of what happens: if you fall asleep, lose concentration, focus on the wrong part, or do not feel anything, just do it.” It is an opportunity to nourish the potential of healing within yourself. “Our culture asks us to live so much in our thoughts, in our heads that we sometimes forget the whole body feels and knows, that there is a wisdom beyond words.” We may have built-in habits that ignore, minimise or completely shutdown feeling our own aliveness. Be present to the totality of the experience of lying here. Feeling the breath, how it has been a constant companion, how it brings the whole body together, as does the pulse or heartbeat. It was particularly interesting to expand attention to encompass the entire face, not a picture of the face but feeling the sensations. What is there for you? Be aware of any thoughts or emotions and let them pass. My body dysmorphic disorder primarily focuses on my face; it sometimes feels as if there is a blockage there or that my head is detached from the rest of my body so it is helpful to try to reconnect it. I have visualised a whirlpool of energy before in an attempt to cleanse that area.
To transition into lying mindful movement, we were instructed to wriggle our fingers & toes and rotate our wrists & ankles to reawaken our limbs after the stillness. There was an alternative to the usual twist with bended knees together by crossing the left leg over the right and falling over to the right and vice versa. We were also invited to do the Cat at a faster speed in order to notice the difference. Due to a potentially embarrassing incident last time, I was more cautious with the pelvic tilts, restricting the amount of air being pushed into my vagina. Another development was Tiger, bringing the knee forward as you curl the back upwards, then extending the leg outwards as the head comes up and the back arches. And from Cobra, we were guided into Sphinx, positioning the elbows directly below the shoulders, hands facing forward and looking ahead. “Appreciate your body,” said John, “Remind yourself of all the things it does.” Later, in the standing mindful movement, we were invited to check in with ourselves and to breathe into any constricted areas. One new exercise was imagining picking grapes, by reaching up, onto our toes. And as everyone bounced up and down on giant imaginary balls, I ended up giggling immaturely again; it looked so rude.
Research shows people with a sense of purpose tend to get more out of life. For some it is bound up with religion or spirituality but it does not have to be. Drop a pebble in a lake (pond or well) carrying the question, “This is my life I have no other, what do I want to do with it?” As it drops down, notice whatever answers rise up; sitting in silence & listening. Recall the final line of Mary Oliver’s Summer Day poem, “What is it you plan to do with your one, wild & precious life?” Beneath the rational or conscious is the subliminal, an area of the mind which is not so easy to access, often one of the key controllers of how we behave and think. It incorporates the automatic pilot and the egocentric preference system with its attachment to likes and aversion to dislikes. Sometimes, the more interesting things are beneath the surface so by dropping the pebble and consciously not thinking about the question (letting it hang there), answers emerge that may make sense. Do it a few times. After the break, there was a sitting meditation featuring the poem ‘Autobiography In Five Short Chapters’ by Portia Nelson.
1. I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost … I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
2. I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
3. I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
4. I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
5. I walk down another street.
This was followed by a guided reflection about the course and writing a letter to yourself. Some folks wrote essays whereas I only managed a paragraph and drew a picture of myself sitting cross-legged under a giant tree. I was feeling restless and agitated, probably due to it being the last day, needing closure and considered the final homework (below) and this blog to be my main sources of reflection. “Think about what you want to be sure to remember.”One important observation that a few people made was to recognise mindfulness as a long-term thing, so this became the key reminder in my letter, whereas the drawing signified how I seem to have rediscovered trees. I decided to go with flow and respect my contrary mood. Acceptance; it is what it is. The programme has been wonderful and fascinating but I fear at times, I have been documenting more than actually doing it. I was a little sad it was ending and that I had not managed to talk to everyone in depth; perhaps I should have made more effort to communicate with certain people. Sadly, it seems some are only destined to have a brief cameo or extra role in your life.
The final homework was to complete the action learning questions as follows…
What are the problems? (Either on the course or that led you to it.)
a) Integrating mindfulness into everyday life, getting into the habit, establishing a routine. Finding a time & place to meditate. Letting go of intention or purpose; impatience for immediate results. Not being ready to go for it, doubt.
b) Struggling to visualise mental events in a separate manner despite suggestions of clouds in the sky or cinema screens.
c) Feeling woozy and nauseous during some meditations like a psychedelic trip. Annoying itches & pains when you are trying to keep still.
d) Resentment & jealousy creeping in towards others who appear to be carefree & content during loving kindness. Resistance to forgive enemies for treating you cruelly or wrongdoing in compassion & equanimity.
e) Difficulty finding peace of mind, a sense of freedom, seems unrealistic, unpractical.
f) Comfort eating, feeling guilty for bingeing.
g) Multi-tasking & information overload.
What are the causes?
a) Lacking discipline & motivation. Being a perfectionist, determined to accomplish.
b) Overactive mind, just get absorbed or lost. Hard to be objective (see *).
c) Possibly a result of overdoing it, being overwhelmed, low blood pressure or impending sickness (had the lurg a week later). Stress & tension in the body.
d) Experiencing a lot of pain & suffering due to personal afflictions (see e).
e) Dealing with harsh, demanding reality (earning a living / commitments / spending money) & mental illness i.e BDD, obsessive compulsive rituals, anxiety & depression. *Negativity bias, being over-sensitive, fretting and analysing everything to death.
f) Being on automatic pilot. Loneliness, lack of keeping busy with a partner or being bored & unfulfilled by daily activities. Needing to fill the hole in my soul, to satisfy, momentary pleasure.
g) The technological, short-attention span, internet-obsessed age / culture we live in.
What are the solutions including the practices and actions that help?
a) Both my chairs (desk & armchair) are dedicated to other activities so buying a meditation stool, mat (setting up a dedicated area / shrine) or using the bed seems more logical. Easier to meditate before or after sleep in a relaxed position. Experiment further in finding a chosen anchor; visualisation, sounds & movement especially seem to aid concentration. Accept limitations without giving up, have faith. Go to weekly classes or the continuation group. Even if you lack commitment to the formal practice, keep focussing on the informal. Recognise it is a gradual, ongoing process; you have a whole lifetime to master mindfulness.
b) Tell yourself thoughts are perfectly fine & gently congratulate yourself for noticing your mind has wandered because it means you have come back to the present moment. Write down / record positive & negative events (balanced) each day to reflect, process & learn how to be an impartial observer (for e too).
c) Take better care of yourself (see g). Practice acceptance when needing to scratch or wriggle as with irritating noises. It is what it is. Massage areas of discomfort.
d) Focus on one person that is struggling and needs energy sending as in compassion or equanimity. Keep practicing the 4 Immeasurables. Remember holding onto anger & resentment is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
e) Use coping strategies like breathing when feeling the fear. Notice the 2nd dart & utilise the ABCDE technique. Use the self-forgiveness meditation. Be gentle, treat yourself as you would others.
f) Keep trying to savour meals & avoid distractions. Find meaningful tasks to occupy your mind and body. Add yoga (not too advanced & just stretch during balancing poses) or Shaolin walking to exercise regime.
g) Create more than consume, take a break from social media and focus on one task at a time. Remember you are a human being, not a computer.
For more information, go to www.mindfulenhance.org