Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life

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Heart Connections

Last week, the five of us met in the Barn. All women, all relieved and thankful to be there, to be with one another, opening up our hearts, meditating together, laughing, shedding a few tears and sharing food. The interior of the Barn was flooded with golden sunshine, filtering through the grape vines festooning the balcony and glittering on the wet leaves of the apple trees and sodden grasses in the orchard beyond. We all value this group so much as a space in which –  yes, to practise together, to explore ideas –  but more than anything it’s about the strength of our connections to one another. Our heart connections. Forged through 5 years of coming together to meet every month. We spoke about how we hardly know who or what our real selves are. How when we look deeper into our hearts the spaciousness grows, a warm emptiness. But the one thing we agreed on is that these connections with the ones we love (and even the ones we hate) are the strongest, most vivid thing. That is real.

This morning, on my day off, I set aside one and a half hours to practise yoga. It was a heart-opening class (Eckhart Yoga) and it felt amazing to expand my chest through back-bends and other poses, as if I were setting my heart free.

It’s at times like these – whether meeting my dharma friends or practising yoga or loving kindness meditations – that it all can suddenly seem so simple. Just open the heart. Open up. As wide as you can. Be vulnerable, be sensitive and quivering – it’s all ok. I wish I could do that always. That’s what I’m working towards. But right now I’m tired, the wind’s blowing hard outside and I’m scared of what the future might bring.

Like mindfulness, opening the heart is a moment to moment practice, never over and done with once and for all. Like doing the laundry!

The heart is a garden - secret yet open - accessible to all - an orchard - a sanctuary and a stepping off place

The heart is a garden – secret yet open – accessible to all – an orchard – a sanctuary and a stepping off place



Falling into the Well of Nothingness

“Feel the hips and on the outbreath empty the hips, imagine they sink into the ground, emptying down into the earth, releasing, letting go any tensions, any emotions, anything stored that no longer needs to be there..” As I listened to Esther Eckhart during the final relaxation of this morning’s online yoga class I felt my body respond, the tension and holding all draining away. How good it felt to lie there, lighter and less enclosed by my experience. It wasn’t so much emptiness but more a silent fullness, like the peace in a classroom after all the noisy, clambering schoolkids have departed.
But an article I read yesterday addressed a potential pitfall in the practise of mindfulness, of experiencing a much less pleasant type of emptiness. A sensation described in Buddhist texts as “falling into the well of nothingness”. Entitled The Mindfulness Boom and its Modern Misconceptions (courtesy of a link in Wildmind’s latest newsletter), the article addresses the prevailing popular idea of mindfulness as a kind of stress relieving panacea for all ills. To quote from the article and the words of a British psychiatrist, Florian Ruths:
“Several studies show mindfulness can have unpleasant side effects,” he says. “Most of these are perfectly harmless, but when you experience them, you don’t necessarily know it.” The strongest and rarest of these, he says, are episodes of depersonalization, a sensation where, instead of being in your own life, you feel as if you were in a film, or as if the surrounding world wasn’t real. “Normally, it disappears in a few minutes,” he says. “Very rarely, it can last up to a few days. Our research will concentrate on this.”

Actually, Buddhist practitioners have been “researching” this for hundreds of years. It can even be seen as a positive, a sign that you’re letting go of old concepts of self and other, opening up to the potential for greater connection with the world around you. But it can be dangerous territory for some.

My own experience has been that this happens rarely but it can be most unnerving when it does. It usually comes on during a retreat as a result of all the extra time spent in meditation. It’s like the proverbial rug being pulled out from under your feet. There’s a profundity to the experience that’s undeniable but you can be left feeling somewhat shaken. I’ve often had to retreat into the comfort of the known for a while afterwards to recover.

What you need at these times is a guide or at least someone who understands roughly what you’re going through because they’ve been there too. And it does concern me that, with the way mindfulness is mainly delivered as a discrete 8 week course, there might not be the continuity of guidance that there is in  the more traditional Buddhist settings where Sangha (community) is seen as essential. Though, I think this is starting to develop with more ongoing mindfulness drop in classes and one day or weekend retreats with access to the counsel of an experienced, genuine mindfulness teacher.

For me, as an aspiring mindfulness teacher, it’s something to think about carefully. So my humble advice to someone starting out with mindfulness – keep an open mind, don’t be alarmed if difficult feelings rear up, but do talk to a trustworthy mindfulness teacher about it and see if you can find a group of other mindfulness practitioners to link into and so find your own mindfulness sangha. I myself couldn’t survive without it.