Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life


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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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Mindfulness Emergency Kit

breaking point

 

Jon Kabat-Zinn is often quoted as saying that through your daily mindfulness practice you weave a parachute you can use when the going gets really tough. There is a cumulative effect of practice where gradually we begin to find it easier to stay grounded and calm in the midst of life’s daily stressors.

But there are those heightened, extra stressful moments when we feel we’re in danger of ‘losing it’. At these times, we need the mindfulness equivalent of a dose of rescue remedy.  So with this in mind, here are some easy-to-slot-in practices you can try when the going gets really tough.

  1. FOFBOC

This one was originally thought up for stressed teenagers in the examination hall. It stands for Feet on Floor Bum on Chair and can be done anywhere. Sitting in a chair, you consciously shift your attention to noticing sensations in the feet and their contact with the ground. This immediately takes you away from the whirl of anxious thoughts in your head and is in itself very grounding.  You can then take your attention to the sensations of contact with the chair felt in your buttocks and backs of thighs and an awareness of the support of the chair. If you like you could then spend some moments focusing on your breath as well.

  1. Take a Mindful Pause

This is also very simple. You just stop whatever you’re doing – typing a report, mowing the lawn, or generally rushing around trying to multi-task – and take 3 mindful breaths, feeling the movement and sensations of breathing in the body. Then carry on with your activities, perhaps noticing what a difference simply pausing can have.

  1. Walking Mindfully

Sometimes we feel very agitated and restless to the point where sitting still even for a few moments seems impossible. At these times, taking a mindful walk, whether slowly up and down the hallway or outdoors in the garden or more briskly out and about, can really help to bring us back into a sense of groundedness and greater connection between mind and body. As you walk particularly focus on the sensations in the soles of your feet and your contact with the ground beneath.

  1. Acting Mindfully

This involves noticing and labelling what’s happening in your moment by moment experience which can help to de-centre your focus away from ruminating or speedy anxious thoughts. For example you could lightly say to yourself, “now I’m walking down the stairs, feeling the bannister with my right hand, now I’m turning the door handle and now I’m walking into the kitchen” and so on until you notice your thought processes have settled. You can also choose to really focus on an activity you’re involved in, by opening up to sensory awareness – what you can feel, see, hear, smell, taste – as you engage with whatever it is you’re doing. There’s always a lot more to notice than we realise and this can vivify our present moment experience as well as helping to ground us.

  1. Taking a Break

When we feel time’s against us and there’s so much to do, we often think we need to just keep soldiering on. But common sense backed up by lots of research tells us not only will we feel better, but our productivity will improve by taking regular breaks. You can even make a lovely mindfulness practice from first making and then drinking your cup of tea or coffee, or even a glass of water. There’s so much to appreciate in the aroma of the tea or coffee, the warmth the cup in your hands, the flavours and taste sensations.

And if you’re too stressed and overwhelmed to even contemplate doing any of the above, simply stopping for one conscious breath can be surprisingly effective.

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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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Those In-between Times

fifty-one-years-ago-1450354

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…