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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

bubbles

For source of image see link

Yesterday I was wrestling with my difficulty experiencing pure consciousness separate from some of its key contents. I felt there were other issues that it would be better to take up in this next post.

First of all, before I move onto another aspect, I need to register a discomfort with the idea of the observing ‘self.’ I want to keep an open mind about the exact nature of what I am experiencing at present. To that end, I am going to speak of the ‘Watching Mind’ to describe this aspect of my being. I’m sure it is an aspect of mind at least, though I’m not convinced yet it will be a self. I indicated in my first post on this process that I would be uncovering other aspects of mind as things progressed, so now we have the Watching Mind as well as the Writing Mind.

In terms of the Watching Mind, in repeating the ‘watching my thoughts exercise’ again later, it seemed that I experience my thoughts as emanating directly from my centre of consciousness as though I am blowing them like bubbles from a ring. As they float away, they come into my Watching Mind’s field of vision but by that time I may have been floating off on some bubble or other. When I am anxious about something, my mind is more like a geyser, with hot bubbles coming up constantly, disturbing the surface of consciousness so much there is no calm surface for reflection to float on.

Later I came to feel that the best image for my relaxed state is experiencing my thoughts as rain drops on a skylight. Sensations and perceptions are what I can see through the skylight. Thought, and to some extent feeling, is still my window of consciousness to which my observer is so closely linked that, when thoughts blur its clarity, it’s hard for me to stand back and watch them rather than be confused along with them, and they also distort what I am looking at in terms of perceptions and sensations. I have attempted to capture this and the effects of feelings such as anger and anxiety in the poem at the bottom of this post. None the less, as this spider photo shows, I’m catching many subtle details of the world around me, which is enriching my experience greatly. Just in case you’re wondering I did spend some time simply looking at the spider and its web before realising it might be good to take a picture for my blog. I’m not in Writing Mind all the time! 

Car Spider v2

I have faced some testing situations recently and every one has given me an opportunity to dig deeper into understanding how my mind’s weather works. I have seen them as problems to solve with the Fixing mind (I may come back to that new character in a later post), perhaps with some help from subliminal hints. I had not thought of them, not so much as puzzles to be solved but as opportunities to grow wiser, more compassionate and fairer by getting into ever deeper contact with my own mind, its nature and its responses. I will be returning to a more detailed examination of one of the simpler examples in a subsequent post.

I have spent too much time trying to second guess and interpret other people rather than seeing them as spurs to exploring the hinterland of my own consciousness for the treasures it contains that might lead me to truly understand what is going on. This would not necessarily solve it by changing the situation, so much as help resolve interpersonal conflict, and other problems too of course, by changing my whole understanding of an experience.

It was intriguing to note that as the days passed, I discovered that I was experiencing some faint leaks of emotion connected with one of the supposedly dynamite situations I had been using to try and elicit the strong reaction I was meant to be getting. Now I think that the Difficulties Exploration had lit a slow fuse on what was in fact a tiny firework left over from my original feelings about that particular situation.

A low key testing situation, which I was also experiencing at the same time as I was doing the exercise, eroded my remaining defences. This meant that, when I was asked to dig out some photographs relating to the ‘dynamite’ problem, the residual rip-rap kicked off. The meditation had worked, it seemed, but not in the way I had expected, nor perhaps in the way that had been meant by the authors. Certainly not with anything like the force I had been expecting for the reasons I have explained earlier in the first post of this pair.

Interestingly, going back to the exploring difficulties meditation again the following morning created a tension in my neck. I breathed into it as suggested by the CD that comes with the book. For me, tension in the neck, along with a feeling of not being able to get enough oxygen, seem to accompany moments of negative emotion and/or stress. This kind of stress, it seems, even interferes with the functioning of the Fixing Mind in its own domain, as we will come to see later.

It sounds like an attempt at self-guillotining, as though to detach my head from the feelings in my body. Not a good idea.

Better to look at other ways such as those I will be dealing with in a subsequent sequence of posts.

Skyblind v4

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Observer Objects Eye v2

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, once more I face the question: how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice derived from  Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s  book  on  Mindfulness?

Last time I shared how hard I was finding the Exploring Difficulties exercise. ‘Why were you so surprised?’ I hear you ask. I’m just hopelessly optimistic, I suppose.

The core problem, as I explained, was that I was finding it tough to park a problem on the work bench of my mind and then focus on the effects it was triggering in my body. I recalled that I am kinaesthetic rather than visual or auditory in my processing and remembered my last successful attempt at using breathing to connect with memories that seemed to be stored kinaesthetically.

Thought Train

I was considering looking again at the ACT version of this exercise where they use the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath. This led me to go back and explore the whole ACT model again more carefully for the first time since I retired and recorded my enthusiasm for it on this blog.

As I did so it occurred to me that my problem with Exploring Difficulties may not be so much in me as in the fact that the method was not appropriate for my issues. The penny dropped that it shared its key characteristics with models of therapy used for treating PTSD, for example Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMDR):

Phase III Assessment

During phase III, the therapist will ask the client to visualize an image that represents the disturbing event. Along with it, the client will describe a thought or negative cognition (NC) associated with the image. The client will be asked to develop a positive cognition (PC) to be associated with the same image that is desired in place of the negative one. The client is asked how strongly he or she believes in the negative and positive cognitions to be true. The client is also asked to identify where in the body he or she is sensing discomfort.

Phase IV Desensitization

At this time, when the client is focused on the negative cognition as well as the disturbing image together, the therapist begins the bilateral gestures and requests the client to follow the gestures with their eyes. This process continues until the client no longer feels as strongly about the negative cognition in conjunction with the image.

The elements in common are the summoning up to consciousness of the troubling experience combined with a distractor activity that helps induce greater calm in the presence of the stress stimulus. This allegedly works well for those with readily accessible and strongly negative emotions connected with a clear experience. It may be, I reassured myself, that I had already done enough effective work on the troubling situations I was using to have defused them reasonably successfully.

Swaddled in this comforting assumption, I felt released to re-explore ACT quite freely.

There was much there to intrigue me but I homed in on one particular exercise in which we are asked to experience ourselves as the observer of our thoughts rather than, as in the Disidentification exercise I’ve mentioned before, simply learning to tell ourselves that we are not our thoughts, feelings etc.

I found it moving to read about the idea of experiencing my ‘observing self’ and, to my surprise, tears were in my eyes as I started to practice it at the dimpled-glass garden table in the afternoon sunshine, simply staring at the parasol pole and becoming clearly aware that I am not what I observe in the external world. Not too difficult that, of course.

Observer Objects Eye v3

I then moved from object to object on the table – my notebook, pen,  stylus, highlighter pen, iPad – to reinforce the same sense of separation before closing my eyes and trying to achieve the same awareness in relation to my sensations. This was relatively easy – the sense data from my body seemed to parallel the stimuli from my eyes.

My thoughts and feelings, however, were a very different matter. This was far more difficult and a sense of separation was only imperfectly achieved for fleeting moments.

It left me with a sense that there are objects and sensations that are very easily experienced as out there somehow. Then there seems to be a window or lens, of thought and feeling fused, through which I experience everything else and from which it is very hard to separate any kind of observing self.

The closest I can get is to imagine I am a mirror in which all this is reflected. It is still hard even then for me as mirror not to be entangled with what is reflected in that mirror. I have written intellectually about the mirror analogy many times, and am crystal clear it describes one aspect of the nature of consciousness very well. I have used it in conversation and in writing so often I thought I thoroughly understood it.

However, when the ACT book challenged me to experience the separation between mirror and the reflections in the mirror, I couldn’t or at least not for long and not strongly. I’m sure there are many of you out there wondering why I am making such a meal of what seems a doddle to you. All I can say is that I am telling it as best as I can as I am experiencing it, and nobody could be more surprised than I am that this simple idea is so difficult to put into practice.

I sense that until I can more consistently and more clearly experience the split between the mirror of my consciousness and what is reflected in it, I am not going to make much progress with mindfulness, so I’m going to work on that.

I will complete the issues raised at this point with a second post tomorrow which will fully explain the raindrops idea.

bubbles

For source of image see link

 

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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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