Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life

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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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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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.”


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Where the Wild Thoughts Are

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

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Deer Forest by Andrew Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thought-Fox

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

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

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

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

Across clearings, an eye,

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

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.

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