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 fourth post.
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.
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.