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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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.