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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

woman-meditating

I got an email the other day from Greater Good – a site I subscribe to – flagging up posts and videos on the subject of mindfulness. I haven’t looked at them all yet but I thought this one, by Shauna Shapiro, was well worth posting a link to as it deals very engagingly with the connection between mindfulness and compassion. Below is an extract which starts after she has described her first struggles with the meditative process: for the full post see link.

On the fourth day, I met with a monk from London, who asked how I was doing. It was the first time I had spoken in four days, and out of my mouth came a deluge of the anxieties I had been carrying around with me. “I’m a terrible meditator. I can’t do it. I am trying so hard, and every time I try harder, I get even more tangled up. Meditation must be for other, more spiritual, calmer kinds of people. I don’t think this is not the right path for me.”

He looked at me with compassion and a humorous twinkle in his eye. “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness,” he told me. “You are practicing impatience, judgment, frustration, and striving.” Then he said five words that profoundly affected my life: “What you practice becomes stronger.” This wisdom has now been well documented by the science of neuroplasticity, which shows that our repeated experiences shape our brains.

The monk explained to me that mindfulness is not just about paying attention, but also about how you pay attention. He described a compassionate, kind attention, where instead of becoming frustrated when my mind wandered, I could actually become curious about my mind meandering about, holding this experience in compassionate awareness. Instead of being angry at my mind, or impatient with myself, I could inquire gently and benevolently into what it felt like to be frustrated or impatient.

In this way, I began to cultivate kindness toward myself, as well as a sense of interest and curiosity for my lived experience. I started to practice infusing my attention with care and compassion, similar to a parent attending to a young child, saying to myself, “I care about you. I’m interested. Tell me about your experience.”

Understanding this connection between mindfulness and compassion has been transformational, helping me embrace myself and my experience with greater kindness and care. It has also deeply informed my clinical and academic work. In my writing and research, I’ve explicitly articulated a model of mindfulness that includes the attitudes of how we pay attention. Instead of trying to control or judge our experience, we take an interest in it with attitudes of compassion and openness. We are cultivating awareness, yes, but it is important to acknowledge the human dimension of that awareness. It is not a sterile, mechanical awareness. Rather, it is a kind, curious, and compassionate awareness.

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Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.

Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:

At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . .  Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!

When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.

So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.

Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.

Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.

‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.

“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.

‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.

It was at that point I knew the game was up.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.

And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.

But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.

It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.

In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.

First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’

To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’

The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’

Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.

It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.

So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)

Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.

And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).

And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.

So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.

Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.

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I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

Well, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he illustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

To cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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