Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life


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Cultivating Kindness

You might have noticed a second wave in the development of secular mindfulness, of courses focusing on developing loving-kindness (traditionally called metta) and compassion, such as Mindful-Based Compassionate Living and Mindful Self Compassion

Perhaps this is a necessary corrective to what at first glance might appear the more “mind” centred focus of mindfulness to the more “heart” centred focus of loving-kindness and compassion practices. However, when we practise mindfulness with our whole being, we soon begin to realise that it is deeply imbued with attitudes of kindness and compassion. It is kindness that brings us to sit and meditate. Through our practice we make the inward gesture of kindness to self to be able to make that outward gesture of kindness to others from a deeper, more sustainable well-spring.

Step One – Seeing

First we need to see what’s going on. As we practice mindfulness, we are likely to notice how self-judging we are and gradually we learn to step out of the automatic pilot of negative thoughts and then to see thoughts as interpretations rather than as solid facts. We learn to turn towards whatever is arising for us, whether it’s physical pain, mental or emotional discomfort, surrounding it with awareness. Being-with rather than pushing away or drowning in this experience, we often find that there’s a softening and a releasing which seemingly happens all by itself. All of this is a kind of process of kindness in itself. However, we can also more actively counteract our self-critical and overly harsh tendencies by deliberately developing an attitude of kindness and acceptance towards ourselves and, by extension, others.

Step Two – Cultivating

But how to do this and what if you feel some aversion towards the idea of being more kind and understanding to yourself? Many of us have been brought up to be self-critical almost as a virtue, comparing ourselves to others on all kinds of scales from intelligence to appearance to worldly success. We might be suspicious of the idea of showering good will and kindness on ourselves, feeling that we don’t deserve this, or that it would be self-regarding and even selfish.

However, if a good friend was going through a hard time or saying horrible, harsh things about themselves, wouldn’t you want to show them kindness and compassion, reassuring them that they’re ok. Why not take that same attitude to yourself? Be your own friend. Why do we have to be harder on ourselves than we would be to almost anyone else? And far from being selfish to show kindness to ourselves, it is through developing understanding and compassion towards ourselves that we can empathise with others too.

Here are some questions and reflections (adapted from an exercise in Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Security Behind) to help you become more aware of the way you relate to yourself:

  • What types of things do you tend to judge or criticize yourself for eg how you look, relationships, behaviour, personality, work, study?
  • What sort of language do you use with yourself when you notice some flaw or make a mistake – do you insult yourself with words like “I’m so stupid” or “I’m a really bad person”?
  • When you talk to yourself like this how does it make you feel inside?
  • What are the consequences – do you feel de-motivated or depressed?
  • How do you think it would be just to accept yourself as you are – does this worry you, give you hope or both?

Applying Kindness to stress and suffering

In answering the questions above you might now have some greater degree of insight into the unkindly, conditioned and reactive ways in which we find it hard to forgive or accept ourselves even for the smallest “misdemeanours”. And because this is an ingrained habit of mind, it can take some shifting. So here are some Kindness Cultivation exercises we can do whenever we notice we’re stressed, overwhelmed and suffering (again, adapted from Kristin Neff’s excellent book).

Give yourself a hug – this might sound a bit strange or silly but it can be surprisingly effective because it helps trigger the release of de-stressing hormones in the body. You could stroke or pat your arm, rub your temples or wrap your arms around yourself in a hug.

Friendly breathing

Sitting, standing or lying down begin to tune into your breathing. You could place your hand on your heart if this feels ok. Then after a few rounds of breathing, begin to imagine and sense that as you breathe in you are breathing in kindness to yourself. Then as you breathe out, you are sending out kindness to others in the world. If you find this really challenging, mainly just practise following the breath and from time to time return to this sense of breathing in kindness. Don’t worry if you can’t feel a sense of kindness, even just the thought of feeling kindness will help. How does that feel in your body, in your feelings and emotions and in your mind? Eventually let go of breathing in a sense of kindness and just return to following your breath for as long as feels right.

 Self-Kindness Meditation

 You could do this practice regularly or you could do it when you notice you’re feeling stress, anxiety or sadness.

Begin by feeling any areas of stress or tension in your body. Also feeling what emotions are around, maybe sadness or fear or anger. When we feel strong difficult emotions it can make us feel very alone in our struggle. You could reflect that actually all people suffer sometimes, we’re not alone in this. We all struggle in our lives. This is not intended to make you feel you don’t deserve kindness because others suffer too, or more than you, but more that you equally deserve your own kindness towards yourself.

Then, if it feels ok, you could place your hand on your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch of your hand. Then after focusing on your breath and body sensations for a few moments you could sense that wish to be happier or more at ease and say some of the following phrases to yourself, or other words that feel more right for you.

“May I be well”

“May I accept myself as I am”

“May I be strong”

“May I be safe”

“May I be happy”

If you’re having trouble finding the right words, sometimes it helps to imagine what you might say to a good friend struggling with that same difficulty. Then, could you say something similar to yourself, letting the words roll gently through your mind?

Remember, it’s ok if you don’t actually feel kindness to yourself, you can still say the words and that in itself is likely to have a positive effect on your relationship to yourself over time.

Traditionally, extending kindness to ourselves is seen as the first stage, and we then move out to developing kindness towards a loved one, then a neutral person (the world is full of these!), a difficult person and finally all sentient beings. Here is a recording of a live stream where I recently guided this practice if you’d like to try this out.

 

New Mindfulness Livestream Recordings – A Mindful Breathing Meditation

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Several weeks ago, I started live streaming on YouTube mindfulness practice sessions on Monday evenings, especially geared for people who’ve got some experience of mindfulness practice and particularly those who’ve done the 8 week MBSR or MBCT course. This is aimed to be a focus for practice and a weekly boost. So today I’m sharing the first live stream recording here on this blog and will post them regularly from now on. They’re not polished productions but that’s not my aim.


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Crusty Ovens and Dot-to-Dot Puzzles

Have you ever wondered how much mental activity is caught up just in anticipating things?  How we can’t wait for that wonderful weekend away, dreamily imagining all its delights, or we’re dreading a crucial job interview we just know we’re going to mess up somehow. We cling onto the idea of what we perceive will be enjoyable or pleasant and we do our best to push away the idea of anything we identify as being unwelcome or disagreeable in some way.

A simple example for me of an unpleasant way to spend time would be cleaning the oven. It’s such a big, messy job involving either slogging away with elbow grease or less arduously with nasty, poisonous chemicals. The whole task grows into this big, black, horrible monster (a bit like my actual oven in fact) and I feel  resentful of my husband who wouldn’t see that job as important or one which he should undertake (another blog post perhaps needed on that sub-topic of gender roles…).

On the other hand, I remember reading Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are on the actual joys of cleaning the stove, when you make a mindfulness practice out of it (yes, really!). His description of it is quite lovely. I’ve quoted most of it because I enjoy his telling of it.

“Because I don’t do it (cleaning the stove) regularly, it is quite a challenge by the time I get around to it, and there are lots of levels of clean to aim for. I play with getting the stove to look as if it were brand new by the time I’m finished.

I use a scrubber which is abrasive enough to get the caked food off if I rub hard enough with baking soda, but not so abrasive that I scratch the finish. I take off the burner elements and the pans underneath, even the knobs, and soak them in the sink, to be tackled at the end. Then I scrub every square inch of stove surface, favouring a circular motion at times, at others, a back and forth… I get into the round and round or the back and forth, feeling the motion in my whole body, no longer trying to clean the stove so it will look nice, only moving, moving, watching, watching as things change slowly before my eyes. At the end, I wipe the surfaces carefully with a damp sponge.

Music adds to the experience at times. Other times, I prefer silence for my work. One Saturday morning, a tape by Bobby McFerrin was playing in the cassette player when the occasion arose to clean the stove. So cleaning became dancing, the incantations, sounds, and rhythms and the movements of my body merging, blending together, sounds unfolding with motion, sensations in my arm aplenty, modulations in finger pressure on the scrubber as required, caked remains of former cookings slowly changing form and disappearing, all rising and falling in awareness with the music. One big dance of presence, a celebration of now. And, at the end, a clean stove. “

Now that really is transforming an apparently negative and distasteful chore into a pleasant, fulfilling experience! I haven’t tried it yet myself, perhaps I will this weekend.

However, maybe it’s usually, or even always, a little more subtle and nuanced than this mindfulness trick of turning an unpleasant task into a pleasant one. If we really break any experience down into its moment by moment unfolding, we might see that there’s a whole mix of feelings and reactions succeeding one after another or even going on at the same time.  We can categorise such feelings as being either, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But we tend not to see this, we’re just not aware of the subtle interplay, we’re much more black and white than that. At this point you might be thinking, does this really matter. But it can mean we suffer more than we need to, either from feeling let down by our expectation that something is going to be just wonderful, say a meal at a highly rated, expensive restaurant that turns out to be rather mediocre, or by bracing ourselves against and resisting what we imagine will be an unpleasant experience, like that job interview.

Rob Burbea, in his book  Seeing that Frees calls this the “dot to dot” way of relating to reality as in the children’s dot-to-dot drawing books. This is what our minds do, they join the dots of momentary experience and create a very solid picture of how things are, either as we’re experiencing them or as we’re thinking about how they will be in the future. As our mindfulness practice develops the choice is there to break up all that solidity somewhat by taking each moment’s experience as it actually is.  This can be quite surprising. With greater openness to experience we can notice that even in very difficult times, there is less solidity than we might imagine.  Rob Burbea writes about this in relation to the emotion of sadness.

“If a curious and unpressured, moment-to-moment care of attention is brought to the experience of sadness, for example, we will not find an uninterrupted continuity of that emotion. Instead we typically find what is more like a string of beads of sadness, with gaps in between the beads. We may find, for instance, there is a moment of sadness, perhaps followed by another moment of sadness, but one that is not so intense; this followed by perhaps a moment of another emotion, peace, say; then a moment of sadness again, a moment of what feels like an absence of emotion, another stronger moment of stronger sadness; a moment in which a feeling of love, compassion, or tenderness comes more to the fore; and so on…”

I’m inspired by this approach to mindfulness practice, even while acknowledging it’s not easy as it goes against all my habits and tendencies. Seeing each moment as it arises is more honest and opens life up, allowing room for creativity to break through the crusty old layers of routine and habit. So you could perhaps try it out for yourself, starting with any simple experience, such as drinking a cup of tea, eating a square (or two) of chocolate or sweeping the floor.

And now, on with tackling that oven.

Or maybe I’ll just put it on my To Do list for now…


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Writing, Meditating and Integrity

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This year, I’ve hardly posted at all. Something’s been holding me back. So I’ve started writing Morning Pages again, as devised by Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way fame. Many of you will be familiar with the concept, but for those who aren’t it involves free writing, without pausing to think too much or edit anything out, covering 3 sides of paper, or about 750 words. She recommends writing out in long-hand too, as opposed to typing it onto a screen and it’s true there is something more visceral and immediate about writing by hand. The goal isn’t to produce a piece of wonderful polished writing, but just to write for writing’s sake, though it’s fascinating to see how unexpected little nuggets of an image of an idea or a memory surface amidst the more mundane stuff. Julia Cameron promises that this daily act of writing will get the creative juices flowing in all areas of our lives and it’s the underpinning of her Artist Way course (which I’d also recommend, above many of the huge array of books on creativity out there).

Out of this,  I thought I’d begin to share some of my morning page writing, some selected passages, edited and embellished, because they do arise out of the immediacy of my day to day life and often relate very directly to mindfulness practice. Today, though, I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on my current practice here.

One of the curious aspects of mindfulness practice is how different facets of it come into focus seemingly at just the right time. And recently, the focus has shifted to my integrity, as a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness yes, but more generally also, simply as a human being. I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday with my mum, two sisters, 9 year old niece and son aged 15. It was wonderful to be reunited with my Northern family and  great fun. However, my meditation stool gathered dust in the hallway of the Norfolk cottage we were renting and I over-ate and indulged in a couple of glasses of wine most nights. Of course, this is usual “holiday behaviour” – we let go and indulge ourselves. But it does carry a price tag, for me anyway. On returning home I realised that I felt quite untethered and ungrounded, low in energy and a bit depressed – the post-holiday blues. Was this just sadness at being parted from my family again or also the effect of not taking care of myself better, specifically through abandoning my daily meditation practice through the week? Probably both.

Since then, I’ve been listening to an excellent series of talks by Mark Nunberg available through the generous Dharma Seed website called The Practice of Integrity. They’re recordings from a 6 week course he led very recently at his centre in Minnesota. They explore the Buddhist teachings on ethical behaviour, the traditional 5 Precepts: to not take life or harm others; to not steal or,  more subtly, to not take the not-given; to refrain from sexual misconduct; to practise wise, loving  speech; and to avoid the use of intoxicants. To go into these would take a whole separate post, but just to say these are guidelines rather than strict commandments and range from avoiding the clearly gross acts like murder to more subtle ones like being aware of and containing tendencies towards aggressiveness in our speech. The key is awareness and noticing the effect of what is termed “unskilful” behaviour on our own well-being – our mental state, emotions and physical health – as well as on others. Put simply to behave with kindness, awareness and good intention actually makes us happier. It’s definitely not about judging ourselves when we inevitably trip up or about looking down on others’ behaviour. I particularly liked Mark Nunberg’s taking it right down to the essential inner feeling of when we’re acting with integrity or not in any given moment. Something only we ourselves know. Often we look to others to validate us, but if deep down we feel it’s not in tune with our own understanding of our deeper motives then it doesn’t feel authentic. I really like this, though I’m aware that we have to be careful of not going to the opposite extreme and becoming very self-vigilant and critical, as many of us have this ingrained tendency anyway.

Mindfulness is crucial to this complementary practice of integrity, because if we’re not aware of the effect of our actions on our hearts and minds we can’t see what’s happening and don’t then have the choice available to us to take a different path.

For me, writing too helps in this, crystallising my thoughts and bringing into the light some of the underlying themes and issues in my daily experience, both the positive – which can often get drowned out by the niggly, unsatisfactory stuff – and the negative, seen in greater perspective. Ultimately I then understand that my “slip-ups” are all ok, I can learn from them and they help me to clarify my sense of direction and intention, so strengthening that inner compass of integrity, arising out of the heart’s sensitivity.

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A reason to unroll that yoga mat first thing

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Photo by Martin Louis

This morning I’ve risen a little earlier so I can do a longer meditation practice. I also usually follow that with a half hour of yoga – one of the benefits of working from home is I am able to do this most days. However, I sometimes wonder if I should skip the yoga – do it later in the day – so I can get on with other “important” things. I was thinking that today, then I read this on the Ekhart Yoga website I go to for my online classes:

“Giving yourself an extra hour or half an hour in the mornings to wake up and practice will allow your nervous system to begin the day in a far more relaxed state. Our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are already high in the mornings in order to give us the boost we need to wake up. If this level of cortisol is quickly increased with added stress however, we’ve set ourselves up for an equally stressful day. Making the practice of yoga a habit each morning allows the body to get into the habit of switching off the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ stress response, and instead able to finally tap into the healing benefits of the parasympathetic nervous system – increasing the health of both body and mind immensely. “

 


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Meeting This Moment

Roz Zinns: Greek Doorway, 2011 Acrylic Painting

A re-phrasing of something can often make all the difference. The other day I was wrestling with the concept of “turning towards” experience. This had up until then been such a useful way for me of describing how in every moment we have the choice whether to fully be with our experience or to turn away from it and was a key cornerstone of my practice encouraging in me an attitude of courage. Like when you stop fleeing and turn to face what’s coming after you. There’s a warrior-like quality to it, though it can be something much softer, like when you turn towards a loved one and really take them in fully.

However, on this particular day, it felt like I needed to re-frame this attitude. Sometimes in our practice we need to refresh the way we see things. “Turning towards” experience had come to feel like it was all about me and my awareness. Part of me was rebelling and saying, no I don’t want to turn towards these feelings of anger, my irritation at that person, my fears and tendencies or whatever it might be at the time.

What then popped into my mind was something more like “meeting” my experience. This might seem like a very small adjustment but this simple shift has had a strong effect on my practice both on and off the cushion. There’s still a certain courage needed to meet my experience more fully, but it has a gentler, more enquiring quality to it. There’s more of a sense of relationship between me and others, me and whatever is going on externally and internally. Meeting the moment means drinking it in, savouring it, or at least biding with it a little more when it’s something unpleasant that’s going on. I can be aware of how I am on my side, all the physical sensations linked to feelings and thoughts, emotions in the heart area or wherever they’re manifesting and also more aware of others, even without words there can be a sense of relationship and dialogue, warmly questioning what’s going on.

In this I’m reminded of a suggestion made by my meditation teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham, when working with thoughts in meditation. She recommended relating to thoughts as like guests at a party which you are hosting. You greet them, exchange some words and then like a good hostess, move on to the next guest who’s just arrived. I like this because it encourages an attitude of warmth but also the discriminating ability to retain an overall sense of what’s going on in our awareness. Then again, her advice also has echoes of Rumi’s much-loved poem – The Guest House – here it is:

 

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.

 

“Turning towards our experience” is still a wonderful phrase for capturing this almost bodily sense of opening to whatever is coming up in our day to day lives or in our meditation practice. A revolutionary departure from either pushing away or grabbing onto our experience. However, as the year draws to a close and I greet the start of a new year which will bring all kinds of things – some hoped for, some not, some unexpected – I think that meeting each moment with patience and kindly interest will be the way of being I’ll try and embody, even while I’m bound often to still pretend I’m not indoors when the unpleasant or challenging comes knocking, or sometimes rudely shut the door in that particular guest’s face. In this regard here’s Amy Newell’s wonderful poem On Hospitality: A Reply to Rumi with which I’ll conclude.

 

Welcome all the visitors, you say.

Do not put bars on the windows

or locks on the doors. Do not close up

the chimney flue. Duct tape and plastic

sheeting will not keep visitors at bay.

They’ll pound on the doors, they’ll break

your windows, they’ll breach the barricades

they’ll storm the beach, swarm in like ants

through cracks. They’ll leak like water through

the walls, and creep like mice, and curl like smoke

and crack like ice against the window glass.

Keep them out? It can’t be done, don’t try.

 

Welcome all the visitors.

 

Fine. There’s all kinds

of welcoming, however.

 

I do not have to throw a house party.

I will not post flyers.

There will be no open bar.

No one will get drunk

and lock themselves in the bathroom.

No one will break furniture, grind chips

into the rug, throw anyone else in the pool

or lose an earring in the couch.

 

I do not have to run a guest house, either.

There will be no crackling fire

and no easy chairs. I will not serve

tea to the visitors. I will not dispense

ginger snaps and ask my guests

about themselves:

“Did my mother send you?”

“Why must you plague me?”

“Why not stay awhile longer?”

“Who are you, really?”

 

If I must welcome – and I am convinced I must –

Let me build a great hall to receive my guests.

Like a Greek temple, let it be open on all sides.

Let it be wide, and bright, and empty.

Let it have a marble floor:

Beautiful – and cold, and hard.

Let there be no sofas, no benches, no dark corners,

no anterooms and no coat closets.

No walls, not even a ledge to lean against.

 

I’ll welcome anyone who comes,

I’ll show them my enormous empty hall.

Come in, come in, I’ll say. I’ll even smile,

perhaps make a conversation for awhile.

 

And if someone settles on the floor, as if to stay,

or circles round and round, as if they’ve lost their way

I’ll be kind, extend my hand,

and gently show them out again.


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Our Bodies and Ourselves

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“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.”