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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

The Liberator v2

Image adapted from Marcel Paquet ‘Magritte’ (Taschen)

The 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.

Initial Impressions

So, how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice based on Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

Well, I’ve reached the practice which I thought would be the most fruitful and intriguing. It involves what they call Exploring Difficulty. The technique they suggest is to call to mind a problem or source of stress or upset. Once you have got the issue clearly in mind, you then shift the focus of your attention to the body and look for physical sensations that link to the experience you have called up to consciousness. They describe it as parking a problem on the work bench of the mind and focusing upon its effects on the body.

Pretty easy to do, I thought. Not so as it turned out. I’d bring to mind a problem situation and then scan my body for what the guidance said might be subtle traces of reaction.

Zilch.

Half the week was wasted as I tried to visualise various different testing situations as their spiel suggests. I had started with low key problems in case I got flooded and couldn’t cope. As time went on and the days past, I went for really heavy stuff. Still no trace of physical reaction. I was almost beginning to think I was either seriously dissociated or mildly psychopathic.

Then, I remembered. I don’t do visualisation. When I try to summon up a picture of anything that has ever happened to me, I get a virtual blank. There may be the faintest of possible traces of some visual aspect of the experience, but as a means of revisiting such situations it’s virtually useless. This relates, I’m sure, to the lack of visual awareness of my surroundings, described in an early mindfulness bulletin, that is my default state. I have to make great and conscious effort to notice the details of anything. I look carefully enough to slap a label on it then move my attention onto something else.

I switched to using my verbal memory which is usually a much more effective system, certainly as far as remembering what I’ve read is concerned. I summoned up memories of what was said, something I find far easier to do, though it was not as vivid as I thought it would be. This is perhaps because I don’t usually recall the exact words – rather I remember what I thought people had said – not quite the same thing and it doesn’t seem to work well for these purposes.

Certainly, this approach did engender very faint physical responses, but nothing proportionate to the distress I had originally felt and the traces evaporated rapidly as soon as I turned my attention to them.

Rebirthing Experience

I found myself reflecting afterwards and remembering my use of the continuous conscious breathing approach which achieved a major break through for me into a very early experience. I have blogged in more detail about this already for those who are interested.

Rebirthing was the name of the therapy which provided the experience that gave me this major break-through in self-understanding. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition. These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning. Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

robert_sessionI had found a therapist in Much Wenlock. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body. And at that moment I let go. Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

Kinaesthetic Consciousness

So, clearly under the right conditions I can find traces in my body of earlier painful experiences. It seems, though, as if trying to recreate them in my imagination by either word or pictures in order to gain that access doesn’t work very well. Rather than simply following the breath as a means of unhooking from my thought patterns, it seems that manipulating the breath unlocked the doors of memory in my body’s store.

I’ve known for a long time that my strongest modality is kinaesthetic. That’s why I usually do not enjoy museums much. I can’t handle anything. Only when I can touch an object will I begin to experience it fully and remember it well. And when I make use of an object I will remember it even better.

This creates problems for the purposes of this mindfulness exercise. I have never learnt how to tune into my body’s memories of past events from my head directly. Society has always prompted me to try and use pictures or words. And because I’m just about good enough at extrapolating from that in my subsequent descriptions, I have managed to disguise the flimsiness of the foundations, not just from others but from myself as well. My only way of tapping into my body’s memory store has so far been this breathing technique with ancient roots: a convenient label is breathwork.

The Thought Train

Thought Train

I was almost at the end of this period of practice and needed to decide how best to proceed. I was tempted to try the ACT version of this exercise using the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath me, dividing them into three categories for subsequent recording.

It was after this point, when I decided to have a closer look at the whole ACT model, that things became even more complicated but very fascinating to me at least. It suggested that there might be at least one other reason for my failure to benefit from this exercise in the form I tried it.

I think I’d better come back to that in a later post as it opened up to conscious inspection by my Writing Mind previously untapped dimensions of experience.

Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning, in case all of this seems far too fraught, that my moments of pure pleasure in the natural world are increasingly all the time. I may not be able quite yet to see my thoughts as simply clouds crossing the sky of my mind, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of real clouds far more.

Sky

 

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Since practising mindfulness meditation more assiduously I came to realise that the fourth line from the end of the poem below was simply not fit for purpose. It was just not saying what I really meant and was bathetic in effect.  This is the improved version. The old one is still available for comparison at this link. If I needed a justification to continue meditation, in the absence of any other, this would do the trick!

Winter Song v6

 

 

 

 

 

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Sky-blind

Skyblind v4

Picture adapted from ‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte in the Taschen Edition

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Bird print

The 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 latest phase of mindfulness practice from Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

To be honest, not too well.

It’s true that I spotted the faint bird print (see photo above) on the front room window as soon as I walked in, so I am definitely more observant than I was. You may need to click on the photo to see the effect more clearly. The bird had flown off again so I think there was no serious harm done.

However, I am rediscovering why I have avoided doing mindfulness exercises all these years and been sticking to following the breath instead. Using the breath works in the way I once read described very vividly. In the early days of meditating, before I learned more about the cruelty of some mahouts (see links for the pros and cons of this view), this seemed a charming story to illustrate why and how following the breath works to steady the mind.

When a mahout is taking an elephant through the market place, if the elephant’s trunk is free it snatches a banana here and a mango there from the stalls it passes. If the mahout gets the elephant to hold a short bamboo stick in its trunk it can’t do this anymore. So, if you give the mind a focus for its attention it becomes less distracted by passing thoughts.

So, the first exercises I did, which incorporated either following the breath or scanning the body, played to my strengths and I managed fairly well.

When, as now, I am asked to sit and simply watch my thoughts as they come and go, I am lost almost before I start, even when the lead in is to notice the sounds with which we are constantly surrounded, including the softest ones we usually don’t hear. I can do the sounds part of the exercise easily. My hearing is still pretty good and I can catch sounds at the edge of silence.

Once I switch to watching thoughts a problem emerges.

Because I hear thoughts rather than see them, instructions to watch the cloud of a thought as it passes across the sky of my mind simply doesn’t work. There’s nothing to see. What actually happens is that a thought comes into my brain either bubbling up from the bottom of my mind, soaking straight into my blotting paper attention, or through my right ear and passes straight into the centre of my brain, by which time in either case I am usually riding on this train of thought and have to remind myself to get off.

Because a sound in the outside world comes and goes there’s no need to get off. It passes and the next one comes. No problem.

When a thought comes, and it’s usually from the Writing Mind in the form of an edit to the draft of a blog post or a poem at present, I’m riding off to Scribbleland before I even realise. And this keeps happening. I haven’t yet found a way of not identifying with the thought at that first moment.

I am getting better at spotting more quickly that I’m on board and can scramble off faster, but can’t seem to eliminate that first moment of complete engagement. On balance though things are improving, especially in terms of the basic practices. This registers in a better baseline level of feeling grounded and calm, even in situations that would have created more tension in the past.

Garden party

 

It’s interesting too that in real life situations I listen better than I see. We were at a charming garden party recently and fell into an absorbing conversation with a young couple. When I saw the photograph the hostess had taken of our group I was amazed to see that both husband and wife had their sunglasses on their heads, and he had taken off his sandals and put them on the grass. I had been so engaged in the conversation I never noticed this.

It reminds me of those experiments about selective attention where they ask people to watch a video of a basketball match and count the passes. 60% of those who did this study failed to spot the stooge in a gorilla costume walking through the action. Or that other study where someone stops to interview a passer-by in the street. While they are talking a prearranged couple of workmen cut between them with a massive piece of wood. While this is happening, a different interviewer is substituted, and most people don’t even notice. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself in diagnosing my blind spot about the sunglasses and the sandals as a failure of mindfulness.

In any case I should simply be noting my own self-criticism as just another thought instead of buying into it.

Better luck next time, I hope.

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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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