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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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.