Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life


Leave a comment

Our Bodies and Ourselves

Nude-of-a-woman-011

“I seem to myself, as in a dream,

An accidental guest in this dreadful body.”

Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems

Like Anna, we might sometimes have felt this way, cut off and at odds with our physical selves. One of the gifts of practising mindfulness, for me, has been a healing of this rift, through an increasing sense of the inseparability of our mental and physical states.

Take for example the physiology of stress. I think we tend to forget how bodily an experience stress is. Perhaps because when we’re stressed, though we know it feels physically uncomfortable, we’re often more preoccupied with the thoughts, the judgements, the whole mental articulation of the fear reaction and the impulses that engenders. So it can be quite humbling (and normalising) to realise what’s “simply” happening is that in response to a particular stressor, we’re caught up in a cascade of biological reactions and feedback loops involving the release of neurotransmitters in the brain and the resultant release of stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, making our heart beat faster, our breathing faster and shallower, blood to rush from the digestive system and other less immediately vital functions to our muscles in preparation for fight or flight. From our body’s point of view, it’s our survival that’s at stake here, but with modern life comes chronic stress, which left unchecked wreaks havoc with our health over time. So it helps to know how we can calm all that down, dissipate the stress hormones by activating the de-stressing ones like acetylcholine and oxytocin through a range of considered responses like deeper breathing, self-soothing, meditation, physical exercise, relating to others, and wholehearted enjoyment of our downtime.

As we practice mindfulness we learn how to feel all the effects of this interplay going on in our bodies which helps us to defocus away from the thoughts which might be contributing to the stress response in the first place.

And this doesn’t relate of course just to the stressful. There are also the other feeling states we find ourselves experiencing – love, laughter, contentment, excitement, awe, appreciation – they’re all as much physical experiences as they are emotional or mental. When we laugh we involve our body in varying degrees of intensity from a quiet chuckle or guffaw to a hilarious bout of belly laughter, doubling up – almost beside ourselves. How amazing that is!

And when we cry it can be the same, from a silent welling up of tears and reddening in the face to uncontrollable sobbing that racks our whole body. Or, the unbearable physical pain of suppressed tears, the tightness in the throat and chest, the throbbing head.

Meditative states are also very much grounded in the physical. When I first began meditating I was struck by how positively my body responded, as if appreciating the stillness, through a pleasurable sense of settling in the body and mind and then as I let go more, this tingling sensation all over, like when you hear inspiring music, which I unfortunately came to see as the litmus test of whether I’d had a “good” meditation. And when we’re not connecting our body also expresses this very palpably with agitation, restlessness, tightness, dulling out or falling asleep. This in itself teaches us a great deal about our inner drives and workings.

Recently, I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s talk on The Mindfulness Summit and in the midst of all the helpful, clarifying things he said, he spoke about how mindfulness works with (not against) our biology. At other times, for example when we run a marathon, or force ourselves to sit at a computer screen for 12 hours getting work done, we’re fighting with our body and its (our) needs. This has consequences – though as in the case of the marathon, there may be overarching reasons that make the forcing worthwhile. When we sit to meditate it can similarly feel like we’re forcing ourselves at times, but when we let go of the struggle, we will feel the body’s “Ahh” response, energy percolates through us, or ease and relaxation unfold and it feels good physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

Which is not to say we’re doing it wrong when we can’t relax. Many times we have to go through this tricky terrain before we can begin to find that place of ease. Once we’ve been there, it remains as a validating reference point for our practice. Though we have to be wary of making that a goal, or a marker of the worth of our practice, for we can equally use our experience of physical agitation, restlessness or boredom and dullness as teachers too, of the ways we might loosen up or modify our relationship to ourselves and our experience.

So our bodies have much to teach us and the more we listen the more we can appreciate and wonder at what it means to be embodied. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Coming to our Senses

“At any and every level, the human body and every living organism is truly a universe of unimagined complexity and also simplicity and beauty in its unity of functioning, in its wholeness, its very being.”

Advertisements


1 Comment

To walk is by a thought to go

DSC_0465

Walking

By Thomas Traherne 1637-1674

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,

But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good

Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,

But cannot see, though very strange
The glory that is by;
Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,

Who having eyes yet never find
The bliss in which they move;
Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;

To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,

And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

To fly abroad like active bees,

Among the hedges and the trees,
To cull the dew that lies
On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,

The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
The fructifying sun;
To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,

Who,tumbling in green grass and leaves,
May rich as kings be thought,
But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,

’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
For we may by degrees
Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
From viewing herbs and trees


2 Comments

Where the Wild Thoughts Are

Before we embark on the adventure of mindfulness practice we might be somewhat like a fish, so used to the watery medium we swim around in that we don’t even register its existence. That’s what’s particularly radical about mindfulness. We go from swimming around in the water of our minds to actually stopping and noticing it, and by “it” I mean all that goes on within our minds, within our awareness.

deer-forest-1472261

Deer Forest by Andrew Cooper

Moving now to another analogy, I sometimes think of it as like a forest. At the start we sort of think we are the forest – all the different trees that grow there, the plants and the forest creatures. They are different aspects of our personality, our likes and dislikes, our habits and tendencies and also our relationship to others – who they are and what the world out there is like. We don’t at the outset realise how much all of this is in transition and how it fluctuates from day to day. How one day we wake up feeling primed for what lies ahead, cheerful, positive and good about ourselves and the whole of our day seems brighter and warmer. We feel we’re in the flow and that we’re doing ok, we are ok. Then the very next day (or maybe later the same day) it all changes, our self-esteem gets a knock from something going wrong or another’s criticism of us and suddenly everything feels hopeless, unmanageable, doomed and we’re not doing ok, we’re not ok.

Once we wake up to this going on, while the ups and downs still happen and can still be very uncomfortable, we can at least have a sense that “this too shall pass” – which is sad when it’s a lovely thing but a relief when it’s a difficult thing – thank goodness! And we can become interested, even fascinated by it all, this ever-changing kaleidoscope of conditions, inner and outer, that give rise to the phenomenon of how we experience our lives moment by moment.

So going back to the forest analogy we can become like naturalists – explorers of what exactly is going on within the ecology of our minds. The tall, stately trees with their roots reaching down so deep and wide into the forest floor, perhaps they’re like some of the long-standing facets of our being, the underlying structure to our personalities, our oldest habits and tendencies. Even these aren’t fixed however, but are in a process of change through either growth or decay. They relate to those well-worn neural pathways that are laid down over time until they seem set in stone.

Then there are the forest flowers, ferns and other plants that come and go with the seasons. For a while we might find our experience is suffused with something inspirational, like a carpet of bluebells spreading through the whole forest. At other times, it’s as if winter has set in, all is so frozen and still, or so it seems.

And there are all the creatures that live in the forest – the woodpeckers, owls and other birds; squirrels, shrews and voles, rats and mice; countless insects from woodlice to stag beetles and the bigger beasts such as foxes, badgers and deer. These creatures which come into and out of view are like the flux and flow of our everyday thoughts in awareness. Some are welcome and delightful like the roe deer running through a glade, others are relentless and unwelcome like the repetitive drilling of the woodpecker’s beak on a tree trunk, or the harsh cawing of crows, like those ruminating, negative thoughts that run amok. Some might even seem like mythic beasts – monsters – lurking in the shadows, never fully seen. Then there’s the sense of the observer, the seer of all that goes on, perhaps like a benign bird of prey hovering over the forest.

So over time we get more familiar with the forest. We recognise recurring patterns of thought and what getting sucked into them does to us, emotionally and in our bodies. We also find out how complex and multi-layered our thinking process is. There are the “top of mind” thoughts – the more obvious ones – then underneath that maybe a sub-vocal narrative response to all that’s going on that we hardly register, although it can be very powerful and might often be self-critical or fearful, ever on the alert. Then there are the thoughts of the observer, noticing all this. It’s all as dynamic and eternally manifesting as the secret life of the forest.

In writing this I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ well-known poem The Thought-Fox which is about the act of writing a poem, but also has a flavour of the aliveness and dynamism of the thinking-feeling-sensing process I’m trying to describe. Because it is such a complete and whole piece of writing, I’ve set it down in full below.

The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.

Like all metaphors, the forest one isn’t completely congruent with the thinking process and it perhaps tends to concretise what is really evanescent and ungraspable. However, I like the wholeness of the image, its physicality and emotionality reminding us that our thinking isn’t separate from our bodies and emotions but that they’re all intricately and deeply interlinked. Also, that as we explore and come to know the forest of our thoughts, feelings and emotions we feel more at home there and at ease. We can begin to befriend its inhabitants, even the monsters, and in so doing befriend ourselves.