Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life


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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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Those In-between Times

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sustaining mindfulness practice throughout my daily life and in particular about those transition times, when it often all seems to fall apart.

I mean, those movements from one task or activity or situation or mood to another. Some examples that spring to mind for me are at the end of the working day, especially when it’s been a stressful or demanding one, going on holiday, moving from the working week to the weekend, and just generally changes of any kind – moving between tasks, from being with others to being on my own or vice versa, from being on retreat to normal home life, getting sick, experiencing a strong mental state like excitement or sadness. The list goes on.

So what happens to make me zone out and lose focus at these points of transition? I think there’s something about how I get into a particular groove – say, like now, I’m writing a blog post and I’m in that more creative flow. I’ll be very absorbed, but then it’s time to stop and make the dinner. I’ll notice that it’s like a wrench to unhitch myself from that mode of writing to a more practical task like cooking a meal. This manifests as a kind of uncomfortable feeling, perhaps felt in my guts and I might respond by eating a snack or putting off doing the task of cooking by checking Facebook or my email instead. It’s just as if sometimes I can’t handle the change. The shift from one thing to another becomes a problem.

Holidays are a good example too. I look forward to the holiday so much, envisioning what it will be like, how I’ll do lots of yoga and meditation, go running, swim in the sea, draw, paint, take lots of creative photographs, all without resorting to overeating or drinking wine as the temptation often is. But then when I’m there, it’s all wonderful and new and a little bit, well, overwhelming. I feel sort of lost in a way, cast out of my usual routine. So it takes some time, a few days, to let go into the flow, to relax – and then the kind of holiday I have is a different one to the one I’d envisaged, perhaps in a way more mindful, more in the being than the doing mode.

In mindfulness training, working with transitions is very much a part of the practice. During the mindful movement sessions, the guidance will often be to stay with our present experience in between different movements rather than leaping ahead mentally, standing up in our minds moments before we actually do that with our bodies.

I was listening to a wonderful, rich and warm-hearted dharma talk by the well-known insight meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein last night on “Waking Up In Every Moment.” The crux of it, she said, is that we’re always in a state of transition. We never actually fully arrive at the place we’re all secretly hoping for where we can feel in charge of our lives, comfortable and in control. From birth to death, we’re undergoing all kinds of minor to major transitions – in our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, our situations. She told of how once in the same week she’d heard from two people dear to her. One was her then 5 year old grand-daughter who was anxious about starting at kindergarten – “I’m really worried I won’t know what to do when I get there” and the other was a close friend who, aged 95, had just moved into an assisted living home. She’d said of herself and some of the others there, who were still mentally very able, “we’re all having trouble adjusting to our new situation.” Sylvia concluded that in fact “our whole life we’re having trouble adjusting to our new situation!”

When we break it right down, taking life moment by moment, we see that there is a constant state of flux and change. We’re always in transition. When we imagine we’ve found some kind of sense of stability, that’s usually arising out of a sense of familiarity or engagement and focus, which inevitably has to transform into the next set of thoughts, body sensations, reactions, feelings, emotions, tasks, surroundings or whatever combination of circumstances is arising. Within this ongoing transition process, there are of course more “settled” phases which we experience as easier, or more comfortable, but it’s still very dynamic – you can’t hold on to it.

Having said all this, lest it sounds like there’s nothing you can rely upon I would suggest that there are some underlying processes that sustain us. There are our intentions, the ones most important to us, keeping us going. The intention to wake up in time to get to work and the intention to apply our energies whilst we’re there. The intention to practise mindfulness, be a supportive and kind friend or family member, for self-development and growth, fitness, self-expression – whatever it may be. These are what propel us forwards, though obviously our intentions themselves wax and wane and change, in accord with our levels of motivation and energy. So is there something underlying those intentions, that’s deeper still? You could say that’s our heart wish, our deepest values and beliefs and desires for happiness, fulfilment and well-being. Getting in touch with that deeper heart wish can enable us to see what connects us with everyone else and kindness and compassion can arise towards ourselves and towards others. We’re all in this together.

So perhaps the key to working with transitions is to see them as something in themselves, not a kind of vague filling-in time between the more important, more focused parts of our day. They represent an opportunity actually, to step back, to take a mindful pause and honour the sense of passage from one activity to another, from one situation to another.

Although we can’t control the play of events in our lives, we could even out our relationship to our experience, by cultivating a playful, curious, warm interest in it all. The “extraordinariness of the ordinary” as Jon Kabat-Zinn terms it.

In her talk, Sylvia Boorstein suggested a short practice that I think meets this purpose very well. It’s one you can do anywhere at any time, that you don’t need to adopt a special meditation posture for, and where you can keep your eyes open or closed, your focus balanced between inner and outer experience as you say to yourself:

“May I meet this moment fully” as you breathe in

“May I meet it as a friend” as you breathe out.

So now I’ve finished writing this blog post, here’s an opportunity for me to put this into practice, pausing before I move on to the next thing…


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Bursting the Balloon

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Recently, I finished reading A Man in Love by Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard. There are many wonderful passages in the book, short essays and reflections, interspersed between the narrative web of memories of his own life, which made reading the book a rich feast for body and soul.  Above all, entering his world was an uncanny experience of piercing the usual membrane of separateness between self and other.  As I read it was as if I inhabited Karl Ove’s very skin at the same time as my own, his experiences and memories somehow merging with mine. There may be other writers who have achieved this same dissolution of barriers but I am not aware of them. I had grown tired of the “made-up-ness” of many novels, which pull you roughly along with their carefully constructed plot lines. In contrast I appreciate greatly the direct honesty of Knausgaard’s  writing. In a way, his “confessional” and rawly revealing style, as well as his willingness to log all the mundane details of life (and somehow keep you, the reader engaged), is an affirmation for me of my own lifelong habit of writing diaries. All the times when I’ve wondered what was the point to it all.

And during my immersion in Knausgaard’s world I found a thread of something I am increasingly interested in these days. How we find ourselves separated off from our external reality and especially other people, caught as we are in our own particular net of ways of thinking, views, beliefs, values and all the other mix of factors – where we grew up and when, our genes, physiology, family culture, local culture, who we’ve met along the way, the minor or major traumas and triumphs or failures that have fed into our being – not only mentally but viscerally. And also what we have in common, our underlying bonds as human beings. I was taken by this passage in particular:-

“Writing a novel is setting yourself a goal and then walking there in your sleep, Lawrence Durrell had once said that was what it was like, and it was true. We have access not only to our own lives but to almost all the other lives in our cultural circle, access not only to our own memories but to the memories of the whole damn culture, for I am you and you are everyone, we come from the same and are going to the same, and on the way we hear the same on the radio, see the same on TV, read the same in the press, and within us there is the same fauna of famous people’s faces and smiles. Even if you sit in a tiny room in a tiny town hundreds of kilometres from the centre of the world and don’t meet a single soul, their hell is your hell, their heaven is your heaven, you have to burst the balloon and let everything in it spill over the sides.”

This also reminds me of Kafka’s words:

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

I find in writing these blog posts, but especially in the less constrained space of my journals, this kind of uncovering process going on and meditation can be like this too. This getting under the skin of things, of paying deep attention, and of patience, a kind of waiting, that leads to deeper self-understanding and through that, or in addition to that, a kind of seeing into what unites us all. And what seems to separate us, the suffering in that.