Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life

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Memory Foam Mattresses and Much Ado About Nothing

Arriving almost 2 hours late for my solitary retreat, I was greeted at The Claret Retreat and Conference Centre, Buckden by a disgruntled, snowy-white haired priest. With minimal conversational exchange (he seemed sceptical of my tale of M1 closures and traffic mayhem), he showed me up to my self-catering apartment in the Gate House Tower. We mounted the old wooden stairs, angling up the central well and he let me into the space I was to inhabit for the next 3 days. It wasn’t the apartment I’d been expecting to have – ‘All Saints’ rather than ‘St David’s’ – but what the heck – I didn’t know the difference. I did, however, notice a distinct smell of cigarette smoke and experienced an initial slight aversion to the dark cavernous space filled with heavy furniture, reminding me of the typical grandparents’ living rooms of my youth.

claret centre

My apartment was the window directly above the arch of the Gate Tower

After lugging my two big carrier bags full of food and very heavy book bag up the wooden stairs, I made a cup of tea and started about settling in. Then, rather startlingly loud, I heard the first of many hacking cough sounds, coming from close by. An image formed in my mind of Father Jack Hackett, the blaspheming, licentious, old alcoholic priest in Father Ted. I speculated whether a retired, ailing cleric might be living in the adjoining apartment, which I discovered was down a little flight of stairs behind a locked, interconnecting door just beyond my bathroom.

Later on, the man’s coughing was joined in counterpoint by a female one and conversation started up, plus what sounded like the PGA Golf tournament on TV which I deduced by the frequent bouts of polite, appreciative clapping you only get from golf fans on the green. Then it dawned on me, they were just a couple on some kind of weekend away, maybe a Valentine’s break. I also realised that they were in the apartment I was supposed to be occupying, which kind of niggled me.

I went out to buy a few provisions from the local shops in Buckden, a last foray into consumerism. I was charmingly presented with a single Valentine’s Day red rose at the butchers/farm shop and I bought a candle for my meditation shrine in the gift shop.

As I settled down for my first meditation in the early evening, in front of a makeshift shrine covered with a yellow tea towel and the blue tissue paper the candle had been wrapped up in and the single red rose in a pint glass, I looked forward to a solid progression of practice ahead of me.

It wasn’t long though before bursts of conversation, smoker’s coughs and the sound of the clapping on the TV began to take more and more of my attention. I found myself feeling angry and irritated. This was supposed to be a retreat centre wasn’t it, not a holiday home? At one point, failing to unstick myself from obsessing about my neighbours, including berating myself for my meanness and selfishness, I even had a little weep. After which I saw the meditation through and turned my attention to supper.

Cooking was a creative challenge with the absence of several tools I would normally consider essential in any kitchen, eg chopping board and decent size saucepans so I was perhaps unduly annoyed by this too, while reminding myself that simplification and minimalism is part of the retreat experience. I cheered myself up over a plate of pasta and with reading after dinner. I still had more than half an ear out for my neighbours who I’d hoped would go out for the evening, but no – they seemed to be eating in. I could hear the scrape of knives on plates, renewed squirts of cigarette smoke seeping round the separating door frame and a change in the tenor of their conversation to more swearing and even singing, an exuberance probably brought about with the aid of some alcohol.

When I went to bed, I noted how comfortable the memory foam mattress was. Worried that my neighbours might keep me awake and hoping I’d feel less peevish in the morning, I reminded myself that mindfulness practice is about Working With What Is and fell soundly asleep.

The next morning I woke and meditated, feeling calmer and more accepting of the less than perfect retreat conditions. Even so, I was becoming adept at interpreting sounds and thought I detected clues that they might be getting ready to leave. I tried not to be too hopeful and chastised myself, thinking, they’re just as entitled to be here as me and to enjoy themselves and relax (apart from the smoking thing which is actually NOT ALLOWED).

They did leave and peace reigned for a while. I alternated between sitting meditation, walking in the lovely grounds and study of both mindfulness and dharma texts. I let go and began to truly appreciate having the spaciousness of 3 days in which to practice and be with myself after a very busy period of change and new challenges.

I had just started a yoga practice, following one of the Eckhart Yoga videos I’d downloaded, when a family arrived. I could hear them excitedly climbing the stairs, whispering something about ‘All Saints’ – perhaps that a crazy woman was on her own in there meditating all day for goodness sake. Somehow the thought of children didn’t worry me so much and sure enough a few moments later they were jumping down the stairs enjoying the old castle feel of the place no doubt. A bit later on, while I was in downward facing dog, I heard them again noisily charging upstairs followed by a knock at my door. ‘Cheeky little blighters’ I thought, amused but also rattled. Then shortly after, as they charged down again, a further knock, at which I immediately reacted and pulling open the door with some force, yelled into the stairwell, “Who was that? WHO just knocked? Can you PLEASE not do that again!” There was a faint, slightly worried laugh from somewhere, then silence. They didn’t bother me anymore after that.

And so it went on. I calmed down and settled more and more appreciatively into the stretch of the day and evening, having mapped out a schedule which I more or less stuck to. The issue of this being less of a retreat centre and more of a kind of historical Catholic holiday resort bothered me less and less. I reasoned, it’s cheap to stay here and they must be very cash strapped with not enough visiting retreatants to pay the bills.


Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII flanking the bathroom door

Each time I visited the bathroom, I was greeted by the rather stern, regal visages of Katherine of Aragon on one side of the door and Henry VIII on the other, a symbolic representation of their separation in life. Buckden Towers, or Buckden Palace as it was once known, used to be the residence of the Bishop of Lincoln and poor old Katherine was shoved in here for a while, though probably not in the very room I was inhabiting. Now it’s the home of the St Claretian Missionaries. When slowly ambling round in walking meditation my favourite bit was progressing down an avenue of pleached limes at the end of which and on the other side of the lake beyond, was a seated statue, probably of St Claret himself.

During Sunday, further guests arrived – a couple of women, who moved into the apartment above me. They were chattering excitedly, and clearly delighted to be released from their families for a “girls night away”. It was noisy but I didn’t mind – in a way I could empathise more with them than the coughing couple, though strangely, I almost missed them now they were gone. Because now I really was in the zone of solitude.

I love having time on my own, but that’s always been in the context of other people about to return at some not too far off time. A longer stretch of solitude is of a different order of aloneness. And some people go on solitary retreats for years on end! However, having the time to successively meditate through the day, and reasonably long sits, meant a sense of stability and expansiveness gradually opened up. I felt softened up and properly plugged in to my life, my experience and the world again. The texts I’d taken – Saki Santorelli’s Heal Thyself, Larry Rosenberg’s Breath by Breath and Lama John Makransky’s Awakening Through Love, provided just the right amount of input to feed into the meditation and my reflections.

In the end I decided to slightly cut short my stay, leaving on the Monday evening instead of the Tuesday morning on the basis that I’d then have a full day at home to prepare for teaching the MBSR course that evening. In a small way though, it was bailing out. I felt like I’d had the right amount of time away for now and something in me resisted a third night on my own on the memory foam mattress, comfortable though it was.

So I pushed an envelope containing my payment under the office door with a little note that didn’t mention anything about noise issues, and people smoking when they shouldn’t or how dare they call themselves a Retreat Centre when this clearly wasn’t the case. Instead I wrote that I’d enjoyed my time there and had had a good retreat. And I meant every word of it.


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A Tale of Two Selves

Every now and then, something you intellectually know (but don’t really “get”), comes into sharp focus in an experiential or insightful way. This happened to me recently in the very early hours of the morning when I’d woken, feeling somewhat anxious. It’s a regular occurrence these days that I need to get up to go to the loo in the night and as I’m half-sleep walking in the dark, using my night senses to avoid bumping into the wardrobe or door, I have these quite clear thoughts, almost like bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. They have this different quality to them, as if they’ve emerged from a clearer, more emphatic place.

Anyway, on this occasion the thoughts were to do with the day I’d just said farewell to. Regretfully and with a sigh, I thought about how I’d planned to get so much done in that now lost day and in the end it had been taken over by a project which did not go according to plan (I’d been recording audio CDs for the current mindfulness course I’m leading and had to re-do it all again when the editing programme froze).

And in those thoughts of regret and then immediately leaping to think of the next day and all I’d need to do then, I realised with sudden clarity, this is not really my “self” or my life at all. There is always this unbridgeable gap between how I envision the future and how I’ll be in that future and how it actually unfolds, moment by moment. In the middle of the night it all looked utterly crazy – how my whole existence to date, has been this ghost life, chasing down a future that never, ever manifests and in the process bypassing my actual lived life, that’s revealing itself moment by moment. And I am so hard on myself for failing to live this ghost life.

Every day, sitting down to write out an ever-hopeful “fantasy” to do list, and counting myself lucky if I’ve crossed off even a tenth of the items by bedtime. Often, I don’t look at the list for the rest of the day. And yet somehow the following 16 hours or so pass by without the help of the list, actually. But I’ll feel annoyed, peeved and down on myself for not tying my every action and scrap of energy to this list. A list that was born out of the ideas I had this morning about what I should do, that now don’t seem so important anymore. For it’s like there’s a morning me, an afternoon me and an evening me (ie perhaps there is no real definable me!). The morning me is calm, purposeful and hopeful of achieving great things, the afternoon me is feeling rather tired and resigned to failing in my endeavours and the evening me is rebellious, TV-watching, chocolate-eating and philosophical, wryly amused. But at the same time subtly angry and disappointed with myself.

So what would it be like to let go of the lists and just let each moment unfurl? Maybe I’d “achieve” more, if I could be present with what’s actually going on, instead of distracted and harried, like an eternal London Underground commuter, hurrying through my own life as if it were just a means to get somewhere else all the time, never arriving.

Under the Umbrella, Broadgate Circus by H Matthew Howarth

Under the Umbrella, Broadgate Circus by H Matthew Howarth

Time to exorcise the ghost self, the imaginary life I think I should be leading. To say hello to the patient and much kinder, slower self, who’s always been rather puzzled by the lists and the aspirations, the constant leaning forward into the wind with an umbrella that at any moment is going to get snatched up by the wind coming over Waterloo Bridge. To stop being a commuter and instead sit on a bench, be entranced by the waving branches of the trees framing the sky and all the people, with their intricate, complex lives.

Even so, I bet you I’ll be writing out another list in the morning. But, perhaps I’ll try paring it right down, make it more do-able and also focus more on the real intentions underlying the proposed actions, the deeper motivation. Because we do need our intentions to guide us – from the mundane ones to keep on top of the laundry and the minor details of our lives to the less tangible ones like moving closer to a more authentic, truer life. Not an easy one to tick off on a list!

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Trusting Your Experience

Apple by Catrin Austin

Apple by Catrin Austin

I was amazed recently, after I’d signed up for the newsletter of the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA), to see just how many new research studies on mindfulness come out every month. For January there were about 40, covering a broad range of areas such as cancer survival, pain management, alleviation of depression and anxiety, age-defying effects on brain grey matter, alcohol use in undergraduates and, intriguingly, its role in the female orgasm. Mindfulness is being explored as a tool in all conceivable areas from the board room to parliament and congress to the school room and the clinic on top of the hundreds of 8 week MBSR and MBCT courses being run up and down the UK and all over the world.

This can be seen as a huge validation of the effectiveness of mindfulness in a great variety of human lives and situations. The studies demonstrate how mindfulness practice promotes happiness, reduces anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, helps people live with chronic pain and illness, is anti-ageing, memory boosting, increases compassion and improves relationships.

Or you could look at this a trifle more cynically and wonder if this isn’t just some zeitgeist phenomenon that will blow over eventually, a fad, a trend and something more suited to the fringe element of hippies, academics and Buddhist monks and nuns. Surely nothing can be such a cure-all, such a panacea? Can we really trust all these research studies?

There has been a backlash against the mindfulness boom recently, some of it intelligent and a good corrective to the evangelising aspect; some of it superficial and ill-informed. But then some of the eulogising of mindfulness is equally superficial and misleading.

So, how do we ourselves appraise mindfulness honestly and fundamentally. Well, there is only one way, and that is to approach the practice and experience of it as your own scientist conducting an experiment within the laboratory of your own life. Coming to it with an open mind, free of overly specific expectations, aware of whether you are bringing an attitude of “this will be the thing that makes my life perfect at last” or “I am very doubtful that this will be of any benefit whatsoever for me”. This is asking a lot already, I know. It’s not easy to shelve all our hopes and fears, our long-held views about the way we are, such as “I’m not the sort of person who can sit still and meditate”.

As well as being like a scientist or an explorer, it takes some of the approach we had as children when everything was fresh and new and worthy of interest. As adults we tend to default to automatic pilot for most of the time, underlying which is a sense of familiarity with things, an idea of “I already know this” which is a barrier between us and an alive, present perception of a person, object or situation. As children we scrambled about on the floor, finding another world in the underneath space of a table or the inside of a cupboard, or climbed up on top of chairs or sofas – we were always looking at things from different angles – able to make an adventure or an imaginative world out of everyday objects.

So as adults, with mindfulness, we can experience a new kind of adventure. Loading our weekly food shop onto the conveyor belt at the supermarket, instead of seeing this only as a chore to be accomplished as quickly and efficiently as possible, we can open up to our senses. See all the myriad of colours – shades of red, green, yellow, orange – in just one apple, or appreciate the tactile sensations of handling packaging, the differing weight of things. While we stand there, rather than being overtaken by impatience and frustration because the person in front has suddenly produced a massive sheaf of money-off coupons, we can notice that impatience, but then also see that this is a natural pause in the busy flow of our lives, maybe even a gift! So we could check in to the feeling of our feet on the ground and sensations in the body. We could also look around us and open out of our usual tunnel vision, to see the supermarket as a whole and all the individual human beings, whether they are shop assistants or customers, young or old, all sharing in this moment and yet all with such diverse lives. Then you can begin to realise that there is incredible richness in even the most ordinary of daily processes.

So in taking this new open approach to life we become like scientists, like explorers, like artists and like children, all rolled into one.

But seriously, these are just labels, or pointers. The bottom line is – in finding out about mindfulness and trying it out for size in your life – to check in with yourself about the effects of this, its workability, its difficult parts and its rewarding ones. Perhaps using some discrimination and not believing the first judging thought that comes along like “this isn’t working for me” but holding all that in reserve, giving the practice some time and effort and seeing what results. If at the end of the “experiment” you decide, “no, mindfulness really isn’t for me – I’ll stick to running or painting or walking the dog” then that’s fair enough and it’s being honest to yourself. You’ve really tried it out and that’s worth more than all the 500 annual research papers on mindfulness put together.

But watch out, because once the seeds of mindfulness practice have been sown, they have a habit of sprouting up unexpectedly!