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Seven IllusionsI am moving after years of only using a meditation based on following the breath, which serves to keep me reasonably grounded, to practising mindfulness meditation, which is designed to go somewhat further. It’s for this reason, I think, that I am on the look out all the time for hints and ideas to help me move forwards.

There is a recent post on Karen Wilson’s blog which hits a very important nail on the head for me about why attempting to achieve such a goal is so important, and why we need to be teaching it in schools as Layard and Clark suggest in their book Thrive. It deals, amongst other things dear to my heart, with the need to balance left- and right-brain modes of thinking as per Iain McGilchrist’s excellent book The Master and his Emissary.

I also downloaded her book recently and have just begun to read it: it contains many useful insights and I expect I will be posting a review about it sometime fairly soon.

Below is an extract from the blog post: for the full post see link.

CONTROLLING THE MIND

Learning how to control the mind is work that we should all learn at elementary school.

We do learn to develop the left side of our brain, and to focus and concentrate our mind on some given problems. But we are not taught that it is also important to use our mind wisely outside the school facilities. And more importantly we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.

The western way of teaching has created children with a very intelligent mind but which quickly becomes out of control because of its overuse.  We make them forget it is just a tool, and encourage identification with the mind. That is one of the causes of the many depressive and suicidal tendencies developing during teenage years. The burden of the mind and negative thoughts become so overwhelming that the person cannot cope with their own thoughts. They do not know how to find the peace and the awareness of who they really are outside the mind.

In an ideal world, school would teach children to develop equally both sides of the brain. And they would learn how to focus and use their mind to solve problems, as well as how to turn the mind off in order to not over load it and stay stress free.

Power surges of the brain have become way too common in our western world. How many people have turned to drugs, alcohol or medication to find, even if it is for a short time, that peace and quiet inside them?  And then it becomes an addiction. We want to stay high. We want to stay happy. We want to stay blissfully peaceful. We`ll do anything to escape the incessant chatter inside our head.

If only someone had taught us that we do not need any outside substance to turn it off. If only someone had taught us that we could be in control. People are telling you right now, all over the world. Don`t search for any more excuses not to start doing the work. It is never too late. You`ll never be too old or too young to learn meditation. It is just a question of will. Do you want to be controlled, or do you want to be in control?

The Singer

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

solo-0311

As an example of what mindful observation can achieve, this post by Sue Vincent would be hard to beat. By mindfulness practice I am seeking to learn how to enter and remain at will in this kind of mind-state. It’s partly about learning to balance being with doing, a very valuable skill in our machine-minded achievement-besotted world.. Even now, I’m still tending to spend too much time fixing and planning. I admire Sue’s ability to do a lot and yet still have time to smell the roses so intensely. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.   

For the past three days there has been a young heron beside the road on the five mile drive back from my son’s home. It stands, arrow thin, shadow blue and perfectly still, almost invisible, watching the drainage ditch that runs along the edge of the fields. So far I have been unable to stop with the camera… I will try again tomorrow if it is there.

No-one appears to notice it as they drive by, focussed as they are, quite rightly, on the fast moving traffic. I notice a lot of things as I drive. The road is familiar, yet changes daily. For the past three days also there has been a fox, now paper thin with the passing of lorries, yet its coat is still that burnished copper and its tail, apparently undamaged, waves in a semblance of life as the traffic passes. Yesterday a tiny Muntjac deer hopped under the hedge as I drove out of the lane, right in the centre of the village. Today the kites were flying low, diving over the fields in the wake of the farmer, harried by crows.

The trees are heavy with fruit… dark clusters of elder and blackberry, red haws and frosted sloes. Apples bend the branches over the skeletal seed heads of grasses and the pale stems of hogweed. Yet summer is not over and the cranesbill still flowers. A weasel skitters between the cars at the traffic lights.

Coffe cup on garden table

The earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things. I began my first practice using Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness some time ago. It comes with a CD of guided exercises.

They write of how mindfulness changes the brain in ways that make us healthier, happier and more compassionate (pages 47-49):

[Research demonstrated] that mindfulness training allowed people to escape the gravitational pull of their emotional setpoint. [The] work held out the extraordinary possibility that we can permanently alter our underlying level happiness for the better. . . . Another unexpected benefit of [mindfulness] was that [peoples]‘s immune systems become significantly stronger. . . . [In addition] the insula becomes energised through meditation.  . . . This part of the brain is integral to our sense of human connectedness as it helps to mediate empathy in a very real and visceral way.

As a result of even these early stages of this practice, I have slowly become aware of how my mind spends at least 50% of its time in writing mode, flooded with suggestions about how to improve the wording of a blog post I’m drafting and squandering a significant amount of the remainder on aimless daydreams. I’ve decided to label the former tendency the Writing Mind. The other main aspects of my mind, as I’m experiencing it, I’ll come back to in a later post as they weren’t discovered at this point.

I am chastened and amazed to discover so graphically how much time I spend locked inside my thoughts. I have known for a long time that I have a mildly irritating version of Transactional Analysis’s Hurry Up driver which I seek to counteract whenever I spot it, but I don’t think I realised before how very driven I am in a more general way.

Williams and PenmanI’ve a long way to go to catch up on Sue Vincent whose rewarding blog conveys how far ahead of me she is in mindfulness. The breathing meditation I have been regularly practicing for some years now is so much second nature that it comes relatively easily. It’s far harder simply to watch my mind as it distracts me from a simple body scan and notice what it’s doing, without getting on every train of thought that passes by and being taken vast distances into the deserts of fruitless rumination.

It’s not helped by the fact that being asked to focus on my feet regularly draws a blank. As far as my scanning mind is concerned my feet don’t exist.

Anyway I’m determined to keep going for the necessary eight weeks.

As I sit to eat my lunch now at the garden table, I see a spider hanging from a thread of its web and struggling to immobilise the prey intended for its next meal – definitely more demanding than peeling a banana as I’ve just done.

It is strange to see this completely silent fight for life and for food, survival at stake on both sides, enacted in miniature merely inches away. It sets me wondering yet again why God, if He exists and I believe He does, built so much pain into existence. (I’ve shared my thoughts on that at length before so I won’t go there this time.) Interestingly, I actually noticed this battle was happening despite my determination to focus on my own munchings, and I was also drawn into the hunger and the anguish of the protagonists.

Maybe there’s something in this mindfulness practice as a means of engendering compassion after all.

Two quotations from my favourite poet come to mind, the first from Measure for Measure (Act II Scene 1):

. . . the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

The second is from Venus and Adonis (lines 1034-1037):

. . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smothered up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again.

I have always been captivated by his capacity to identify with even the tiniest of creatures, though recent research suggests that Shakespeare was not always so empathic when his interests were at stake, as in the case of his alleged response to the starving who needed some of the corn he had hoarded.

The Bard of Avon, who championed the downtrodden in plays like “Coriolanus,” was a conniving character in his personal life, British researchers claim — a tax dodger who profiteered in food commodities during a time of famine.

William Shakespeare was fined repeatedly for illegally hoarding grain, malt and barley for resale during a time of food shortages. . . . . The profits were channeled into real-estate deals, the researchers wrote, making Shakespeare one of Warwickshire’s largest landowners.

It would seem that Shakespeare was drawing on personal knowledge when he wrote “Coriolanus,” a political tragedy that includes an early 1600s version of an Occupy protest against the 1%:

“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain . . . ”

But then, even geniuses are human – but there’s been more than enough about genius on this blog recently.

Within a few short moments of spotting the mortal combat, I was distracted from the scene of battle by the soft whispering of the wind in the long grass of the meadow we call our back garden. Nature’s redness ‘in tooth and claw’ has been balanced, yet again, by her ‘dearest freshness deep down things.’

Anyway, back to my banana. Being mindful of what I’m eating is trickier than I thought.

Mindfulness is not, at my level at least, about solving such mysteries of the universe. It’s simply about freeing my preoccupied mind to notice them, fully experiencing them and resisting the temptation to philosophise about them. And to that extent it’s been a mixed success. Encouraging enough to continue, though.

I’ll let you know again soon how things go unless it’s a complete disaster.

Our garden meadow

Van Gogh's Prisoners Exercising: nine out of 10 prisoners have mental health issues when they enter prison. Photograph: Alamy.

Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising: nine out of 10 prisoners have mental health issues when they enter prison. Photograph: Alamy.

It is an indictment of our society’s approach to mental health that effective treatment for many forms of mental problem is not sufficiently available to meet the need. The strength of Layard and Clark’s book - Thrive - is to draw this forcefully to our attention. The Guardian Review quoted at length below gives a good sense of the case they make.  

The data the authors refer to in the book include the fact that (page 381):

. . . while over 90% of diabetes sufferers receive treatment for their condition, under a third of adults with diagnosable mental illness do so. This is largely because good evidence-based psychological therapy is not readily available. 

They are also quite scathing about the absence of adequate provision for children, a position which Wednesday’s BBC News item suggests is apparently shared by the government:

Mental health services for young people in England are “stuck in the dark ages” and “not fit for purpose”, according to a government minister. Norman Lamb told BBC News he was determined to modernise the provision of psychiatric help for children.

Although some reviewers have reservations about some aspects of the book, in my view the relevance of its message to the desperate needs of this group of people makes it vital that it be read, understood and implemented in terms of its basic case.

It is interesting also, from my point of view as a retired clinical psychologist and Bahá’í, that they recognise that there need to be changes in the thinking, practice and values of the wider society if we are to prevent, rather than simply fight, the fires of depression, addiction and anxiety to name only the commonest problems.  

Emotional well-being should be taught in school (page 387), our society should become ‘less macho, with more emphasis on collaboration and less on competition.’ We also need to see a continuing ‘feminisation of our values – with more importance attached to relationships and to peaceable and harmonious living. This will be helped greatly as more women come to the top of their professions.’

They also recommend (page 388) that there should be ‘a cabinet minister for mental health’ and, no surprise this one, they hope that ‘mindfulness may become a regular practice taught in schools and practised by many adults.’

Some reviewers have felt that this prescription for society goes way beyond the evidence and, by implication, their brief. I don’t share that view. The book is a powerfully worded invitation to think about the issues facing our society in its approach to mental health. Obviously there is far more to be said, but this is a good place for anyone to start.

Below is an extract from the Guardian Review: for the full article, see link.

Guardian Review

“I once broke my leg in 10 places. As I was taken to hospital, someone shut the door on my leg. You can imagine the pain. But I can tell you the pain of depression is many times worse.”

This powerful quote from businessman Dennis Stevenson illustrates how mental pain can be just as real and even more agonising than physical pain. It opens a punchy polemic that demands action to tackle the misery of mental illness, pointing out the strange inequality that sees broken bones treated but shattered spirits ignored.

Many readers will know this from personal experience. One in six British adults suffers from depression or anxiety disorders that disrupt, even destroy, lives. Mental illness is often more disabling than chronic conditions such as angina, arthritis or diabetes, while it shortens life expectancy as severely as smoking. One in three families contains someone who suffers mental illness, with one in 10 children having diagnosable mental disorders – yet fewer than one-third of these people receive treatment.

Such shocking statistics litter the pages ofThrive, the latest blast by former “happiness tsar” Richard Layard in conjunction with David Clark, professor of psychology at Oxford University. Lord Layard is a celebrated labour economist who deserves plaudits for promoting the concept of placing wellbeing alongside wealth as a government goal – an idea promoted by David Cameron in opposition, then sadly shunted aside in office after coming under fire from critics who failed to understand the issues.

The book’s central point is that the failure to place mental illness on a par with physical illness costs the country dearly. This is perhaps most obvious with suicide rates. The vast majority of people who kill themselves are mentally ill – and as many people die worldwide at their own hand as from murder and warfare combined. Twice as many men take their own lives as women, something I have seen from traumatic personal experience like too many people – and perhaps most poignantly, youth suicide is rising in most nations.

Beyond these individual tragedies, the authors argue, the entire country suffers from this mental health crisis since it imposes such costs on society. “The scale of mental illness is mind-boggling,” they write. It accounts for almost half of absenteeism, keeps big numbers out of work and drives up the benefits bill; the combined effect on the economy reduces national income by an astonishing 4%. Nine out of 10 prisoners also have mental health conditions upon entering prison.

This barrage of data is bad enough. “But what is really shocking is the lack of help,” say Layard and Clark.

It may not make for the most scintillating reading but it is hard to argue with their case that the failure to help those in mental distress is an injustice. Anyone with the slightest experience of mental illness knows how crushing these conditions can be; we should be thankful that the courage of some sufferers, in discussing the impact in public, is starting to end an irrational social stigma. It also makes economic sense, since helping people to recover from their problems generates immense savings for national economies.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

See here for the original Spanish. For source of image see link.

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Given all the distressing evidence of ‘man’s inhumanity to man‘ around the globe, it may sound strange for me to get upset about the fate of elephants in Africa. Very upset I was, though, none the less, when I read the BBC report on how close the African Elephant is to extinction. Elephants are one of the most socially evolved and sensitive species on the planet. Gaza, Syria and Iraq notwithstanding, this is therefore still utterly shocking evidence of where greed, ignorance, superstition, global connectedness, economic power, advanced technology and complete lack of empathy can lead.

If we can do such things to our own kind, as well as to such advanced life forms as this, heaven help the rest of life on earth if we don’t change.  Below is an extract: for the full post, see link.

Africa’s elephants have reached a tipping point: more are being killed each year than are being born, a study suggests. Researchers believe that since 2010 an average of nearly 35,000 elephants have been killed annually on the continent. They warn that if the rate of poaching continues, the animals could be wiped out in 100 years.

The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lead author George Wittemyer, from Colorado State University, said: “We are shredding the fabric of elephant society and exterminating populations across the continent.”

Dramatic loss

The illegal trade in elephant tusks has soared in recent years, and a kilogram of ivory is now worth thousands of dollars. Much of the demand has been driven by a rapidly growing market in Asia.

While conservationists have long said the outlook was bleak, this study provides a detailed assessment of the impact this is having on Africa’s elephants. The researchers have found that between 2010 and 2013, Africa lost an average of 7% of its entire elephant population each year. Because elephant births boost the population by about 5% annually, this means that overall more of the animals are being killed than are being born.

. . . . .

Conservationists said urgent action was needed.

John Scanlon, secretary-general of Cites, said: “The world needs to decide how much further effort it wants to put into the conservation of this magnificent species and, if so, be prepared to mobilise the necessary human and financial resources to deliver – and we are seeing some encouraging signs in this regard.

“In terms of concrete actions, we need to move to focus on the front-line and tackle all links in the illegal ivory trade chain – improve local livelihoods (for those living with elephants), strengthen enforcement and governance and reduce demand for illegal ivory. “

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