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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Mind

Image scanned from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

My much 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. So, how have things been going in this phase of mindfulness practice, drawn from Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

I was dreading the Mindful Movement meditation. For a start it just feels weird, standing in a room with windows to the outdoors, following softly spoken instructions to reach in the air for an imaginary apple. The other stuff simply amounted to sawn off flexibility exercises. I couldn’t see how any of that could be conducive to mindfulness. The succeeding Breath and Body exercise was bread and butter to me – it made sense and was very like what I have been practicing off and on for years.

The Mindful Movement meditation has not proved as bad as I expected but it still leaves me feeling slightly bewildered every time I do it. I think that part of the problem is that, in spite of the constant reminders to the contrary, I am still holding onto to a hope, which I even keep secret from myself most of the time, that at some point there will be a dramatic breakthrough.

It’s the poem at the top of this post again. I’ve kept it there for now as a reminder. Mindfulness is about making me aware of inner scenery, not about changing the furniture.

It must be working at some level as I catch myself, far more often than before, pausing as I put the coffee grounds into the cafetière, to savour the aroma and scrutinise the subtly different shades of brown and varying sizes of the coffee grains. Also this morning I noticed that there were three different kinds of snapdragon in the pots outside the front door instead of just glancing and categorising them all as the same thing.

 

Pizza base eye blend

Perhaps most tellingly I noticed, as I was preparing the pizza dough, that the shadow the oil made on the glass base behaved not quite as I supposed at a casual glance. The shadow on the window-side fell inside the ring of oil and the shadow on the opposite side fell outside the edge of the oil. It was obvious why as soon as I spotted it, but until I spotted it had never occurred to me that the orientation of the light would make shadow a prisoner of the oil on one side and a free shade on the other. Looking at the photograph I took showed that the same is true for the shadow of the glass base on the wooden chopping board. I had never troubled myself to catch sight of this fine distinction before.

The discovery of this deficiency did not come as a complete surprise. When my wife and I visit someone in their home, often when we leave my wife will exclaim, ‘Did you see that lovely vase on their sideboard?’

To which I usually reply, ‘What sideboard?’

This brought back the story I had first read in Assagioli’s book – Psychosynthesis. He describes the approach Agassiz took in training his students.

After the experience with the oil I came across another account of the same situation in Paul Jerome Croce’s book – Science & Religion in the Era of William James – (page 119):

His most important innovation in the classroom was his use of primary materials. Instead of lecturing, Agassiz preferred to give his students specimens or to take them into the field. Many of his former students report that their first assignment was simply to look at a single fish for a few days, observing it in minute detail. Each time the students brought an abundant and “complete” reading of the fish, Agassiz would insist that more could be found; and the students invariably amazed themselves with the new things they would see.

I first read that story in 1976. It seems I am a slow learner.

I will be coming back to Croce’s book on William James at a later date. In the meanwhile I will push on with my mindfulness practice.

Louis Agassiz (for source of image see link)

Louis Agassiz (for source of image see link)

 

 

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Mind

Image scanned from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

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. How are things going with the mindfulness practice using using Mark Williams  and  Danny  Penman’s  book  on Mindfulness?

I’m a long way from the promise of the poem in the picture.

At the end of the previous bulletin I rashly committed myself to reporting on progress as the weeks went by. This is my attempt to convey how the second phase went.

Maybe the thought has crossed your mind as to why a qualified psychologist should need to practice mindfulness at all given what he learned in training.

The first point is that I was trained before mindfulness was even thought of in clinical psychology. Secondly, when I felt the need to build in that kind of dimension while I was working with people who were struggling with psychotic experiences, I found it useful to draw on the idea of reflection from existentialist therapy and a Disidentification exercise which I adapted from Psychosynthesis (see links), processes I used myself along with the Buddhist breathing meditation I’d learned in the 80s.

By the time mindfulness came along I simply dabbled rather than trained in it. Truth to tell, I am finding, as I always have, simply watching my mind more difficult than focusing on something like my breathing.

Anyway the recent experience, as you might have guessed, was a curate’s egg – good in parts.

What wasn’t so good?

Well, the body scan element of the first phase moved on to include more parts of the body and, predictably, I discovered that more bits of me are undetectable to the scanning mind unless I cheat and move. In addition to the feet, when I lie still, I now have gaps where my knees, ankles and hips should be. I’m amazed I can walk about unaided. If they didn’t miraculously materialize when I needed them I’d be in intensive care on a life support machine, judging merely by the feel of it.

This is a far cry from the moments of intense illumination I subconsciously believed would happen while pretending to myself I knew better.

I have committed to continuing with this process even though, at every gap in my skeleton, my mind zooms off to roam more congenial territory. It tinkers with my blog drafts providing tempting suggestions (it knows I’ll be a sucker for that one – convincing myself that these are sacred hints from the subliminal), plans what I’m going to eat for dinner, and wanders far down memory lane into my childhood if the voice of the guided meditation doesn’t resume in time to bring my attention back. Sometimes I find my mind has taken off even before Williams talks about focusing it on my knees and doesn’t come back to the present until he’s asking me to home in on following my breathing, a far easier skill that my mind is keen to show off about.

In the end, at the eleventh hour, I have managed to give myself permission to wiggle my toes and flex my knees and ankles slightly, so they make themselves felt. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) includes such suggestions in its guidelines so I think I’m on firm ground here.

Enough of the bad news. What are the good parts of the egg?

Well, the chapter of the book I’m working with was recommending that I take at least one mindful walk each week into unfamiliar territory.

In this respect the gods were clearly on my side.

We had two friends come to stay who like walking. Not only that but, as experienced and devoted gardeners, when they walk they stop at every unknown flower, shrub and tree to inspect it in detail, root and branch, from leaf through fruit to bark and beyond if necessary. Arguments raged over whether some small trees we found were alder or hazel. This was triumphantly settled by the victor’s producing an undoubted hazel nut from the branches of an alder.

One of them, a former civil engineer, picks up on every interesting detail on every house we pass. He can date the brickwork and spots at a distance tiny medallion shapes embedded in Victorian walls that I’d never noticed before.

Elgar Statue v2

And we all stopped enraptured to admire the statue of Elgar in the cathedral close – something I usually take far too much for granted.

A walk, which would take me a mere 25 minutes on my own, could take well over an hour, an hour and a half even, in their company.

And I was delighted. It was just what I needed.

And this process did not step once we had got home. Then the reference books came out. A tree that had been boldly labeled a holly oak or Quercus Ilex en route was shown in the study to be definitely something else yet to be established. I’m still working on that one.

On the whole then not a bad period but not quite the successful build on the preceding phase that I had hoped. It has included more frequent moments than I ordinarily experience in meditation when my spine tingles and spreads the feeling throughout my body as though previously separated sections are being joined back together again.

I’m dreading the next week that threatens to play yet another variation on the body scan motif. It’s getting to feel more like yoga – not my cup of tea at all. I’d prefer to stay in my head – but there we go. This is all about pattern breaking.

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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?

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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.

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Mindful Eye Coffe cup

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

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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.

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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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