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

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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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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.”


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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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Practice Pieces: Stop and Stand

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Yesterday, a good friend and I practised mindfulness outdoors in her lovely orchard garden. As I stood in “standing mountain” pose, I felt the uneven soft ground under my feet, the caress of the air on my skin, and with eyes closed, the whole soundscape of birds and wind in the trees seemed to swirl around me as I swayed and balanced, breathing.

It was like being a tree, the closest I could come to that experience both of rootedness and connectedness to the sky above. It was a rich and fruitful pause, as refreshing in its own way as diving into a pool of clear water. So simple though. Just standing – something we can do at any time.

“Standing meditation is best learned from trees” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go There You Are – his inspiring and accessible guide to daily life meditation practice. He suggests practising in this way alongside an actual tree, in a forest, by a stream, in your home or waiting for a bus.

We forget that we can do this – take a pause in the tumultuous flow of our day to stand and breathe. There’s something very centering, wholesome and even revolutionary in its way, about just standing, not for any other reason than to connect with ourselves and our surroundings in the bare simplicity of present moment experience.

There are plenty of potential opportunities to stop and stand. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

– Waiting on the platform for your commuter train – consciously letting go of that forward focused, somewhat impatient, waiting mentality where the present moment seems like “dead” time, and instead, relaxing and breathing and expanding your awareness out from your own body and breath to the whole swirling scene around you.

– At work or at home, when you’ve put the kettle on to boil and you’re waiting there with your mug and teabag ready, enjoy giving yourself permission to use that time to connect with the sensation of your feet on the floor, standing tall, breathing.

– On a starry night, step out into the garden or stand by an open window with the lights turned off and enjoy the different sensations of being enveloped in darkness, cool air and night sounds. Or in the morning going out to stand in the dewy grass perhaps turned towards the rising sun, feeling the warmth on your face and chest.

There are lots of other times and situations I could mention such as in queues, waiting at counters, brushing your teeth, in the shower, standing in a social group at a party, when walking the dog, or deliberately standing up when you’ve been sitting at a desk for hours.

You could even do a formal meditation period standing rather than sitting, especially if you’re feeling sleepy or the opposite – very restless. Standing we naturally tend to feel strong and grounded, when we do it with awareness.

And with all the research coming out about the harmful physical effects of our sedentary lives, you’ll be attending to your bodily health at the same time.