When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness: this is the second post.
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.
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.