Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’
A relevant blast from the past in the light of yesterday’s post.
Forget about jam and Jerusalem. Marmalade and meditation is the real deal.
Bruce made a significant comment on my review of Iain McGilchrist‘s book about the need for a proper balance between the way the two halves of our brain work together, the left with its word-dependent logic and the right with its creative intuition:
At the time I “found” McGilchrist’s book I was reading concurrently a history of Greek philosophers, a narrative of the development of the “western mind” and a quirky travelogue of discovery of “the psyche of Persia we really don’t know”, searching for something I wasn’t sure existed – a unified view, a coherence that McGilchrist just dropped into my lap . . . . Best of all, when I put the book down, I find myself more inclined to seek out a wetlands forage for watercress than a newscheck on the internet!
When I read it I felt a twinge of envy at the idea of foraging for watercress in a wetlands habitat. It was only fleeting though. My connection with nature has always tended to be passive rather than active. My interest in gardens, for example, extends only as far as sitting in them with immense pleasure: any actual gardening tends to result in injury or accidental damage. I end up lacerated by thorns or by cutting the trimmer cable in half. This takes the edge of any slight pleasure I might have felt and tips me well over the cliff into aversion.
So, I came to feel, perhaps with a slight sense of smug complacency, that the impact on me of McGilchrist’s insights, though considerable, might extend no further than a bit of meditation laced with poetry. And those who have been following this blog will testify there’s been a lot of poetry recently. I never thought I’d sink to practicalities.
Until, that is, a friend of ours gave my wife a hefty bag of plums. It looked like there were millions of them and they were very small. My wife mentioned something about making jam so I made some excuse about needing to answer a load of emails and disappeared into my study. I was there for what felt like several hours and thought the whole thing would have blown over by the time I came downstairs to make a cup of coffee.
As even Basil Fawlty at his most obtuse would have realised, making coffee requires going into the kitchen, and going into the kitchen, when jam making is in the air, is not a smart move for those who don’t want to make jam. As soon as I walked in I knew I had made a fundamental error. There on the table was a mountain of plums piled carefully in a massive bowl. Within seconds – I’m still not sure how it happened – I was back on my computer looking for recipes for plum jam. One of the drawbacks of Google is that you can find exactly what you don’t want if you make the mistake of looking for it. And I did.
Initially I emailed three of the recipes to my wife and came back downstairs to continue making the coffee.
‘Have you got the recipes, love?’ my wife asked quietly.
“I’ve emailed them to you,’ I said defensively.
‘Couldn’t you print one off?’ came the response.
It was at that point I knew the game was up.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What I didn’t yet realise was how fulfilling the making of plum jam would be. And how my decision to resume regular and disciplined meditation two months previously had made it possible for me to take pleasure in exactly the kind of fiddly repetitive task that would have driven me to complete distraction just a few short weeks ago. Meditation had enabled me to maintain focus far better, accept the repetition in good spirit, notice with genuine surprise and pleasure the way each rounded fruit was subtly different from the last one and learn by stealth rather than conscious effort how to become more efficient and dextrous at getting every last piece of flesh off even the tiniest the stone. Preparing the plums in this way became a form of meditation in itself, a spiritual discipline that changed my consciousness, heightened my awareness and developed new skills. It changed me in a way that generalises to many things I do from emptying the dishwasher to replying to emails.
And it paved the way for making marmalade. My favourite form of jam.
But before I come onto that perhaps I’d better explain why I started to meditate again so much in earnest.
It’s true that I have always done some meditation ever since I first learnt at the London Buddhist Society in the early 70s. But it had been a long time since I had done so with the discipline of those early days. It’s also true that for some years the emphasis psychology now places on mindfulness rekindled my interest a little. But I had of late been much more interested in reading about it than really doing it. And the McGilchrist book, while it drew me back to music and poetry, left my pattern of meditation very much as it found it.
In truth, I felt I was far too busy to make the time for anything more than a perfunctory gesture at the task. I had far more important things to do and I raced around doing them until the warnings from my interactions with the world became too strong for me to ignore.
First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.
She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’
To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’
The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’
Carl Jung used to say something like, ‘When life has a message for you, it first of all taps you gently on the shoulder, may be more than once. Then, if you don’t notice, it will slap you in the face. If you still don’t pay attention it will bang you hard in the head.’ This moment was my bang in the head.
It became clear to me that I had to take meditation seriously, slow down and trust that I would still be able to do all that was truly important to do.
So, at the start of every day since then, for half an hour at least, I have practised a form of meditation. (I won’t bore you with the details here but for anyone interested I’ve posted the basic model, as used in a group exercise, at this link Turning the Mirror to Heaven. It also explains how the method can be used alone.)
Initially I found it almost impossible to step back from a very disempowering belief. I believed that making time to meditate, and then using the calm I had generated to slow down my pace of work, would in fact make the whole situation much worse by leaving a trail of neglected tasks in my wake for others to trip over.
And it’s true I’ve had to decline some requests to take on more than I could do, and that was hard. But to my astonishment, almost all the major projects I’ve taken on continue to progress, though it still is hard to trust that the pace is fast enough – but as far as I know there’s no great harm done (‘yet’ says the voice I have to fight every time I meditate or do things mindfully).
And the strangest thing of all is that there has been time to make my own marmalade. I never thought I’d see the day when I would take pleasure in slicing orange peel into thin strips as though I had all the time in the world, my enjoyment marred by only the faintest suspicion that in doing so I must be neglecting something more important.
So my present unprecedented state of mind seems to be thanks to marmalade, McGilchrist and meditation. I still find myself wondering quite often, though, how long it will be before life pricks this bubble too. Some people are never satisfied.
Oh and, by the way, we gave a jar of plum jam to the friend who’d set this whole jam thing going and to my surprise she seemed to love it. Perhaps she was just being polite.
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 seventh and final post.
The 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 some months ago and have posted the occasional progress update on this blog.
Given my recent ruminations on the power of tears, a watery subject if ever there was one, it seems timely to bring everyone up-to-date with my most recent insight into the meditative process. It is not one that will light up your sky but I think it is intriguinig.
One night recently I had a dream which could move my understanding forwards significantly. This was how I noted it in my Dream Diary – and yes, I really am keeping a dream diary again. It started after I began my mindfulness meditation but I’m not as systematic as I was in the old days. Any dreams – and I have loads of them still – about losing my bag on the way to a meeting, spilling luggage from my suitcase all over the pavement as I head for the airport or walking to the podium and suddenly realising I’ve lost my notes, don’t get recorded.
I am discussing my mindfulness practice with a group of people. I am trying to describe my problem with simply being aware of being aware. The image leaps to mind. It’s like I’m on a deck chair with the sea behind me. As a wave sweeps past me I am already carried away by it before I know it’s coming and that’s how my thoughts affect me too.
Been searching for a way to capture my experience. This is almost perfect. I need to learn how to let the waves of thought and feeling wash over me. The image is stunningly close to my experience. As I think about this issue I feel moved almost to tears. I’d probably say it’s more like sitting up to my chest in the sea facing land. When a tall wave of thought washes over me I am immersed until it passes and I have not yet learnt how to remain conscious in the mindful sense when the water of thought is above my ears. Now at least I know exactly what the challenge is experientially: maybe I can meditate more effectively as a result.
A few days later, I was in Ross-on-Wye. We’d just been for a walk by the river and had climbed the steps up to the high street. My wife popped into a shop at the top and I said I’d be in the book shop further down, so no hurry. I walked the few extra yards to Rossiters.
I browsed for a while until I discovered a whole series of books on mindfulness from the Leaping Hare Press. They covered all sorts of topics: Einstein & the Art of Mindful Cycling, Mindfulness at Work, Happiness and How it Happens, Mindfulness for Black Dogs and Blue Days , Mindfulness and the Natural World, and Seeking Silence in a Noisy World. What an excruciatingly delicious dilemma! They were all beautifully designed and printed. With the exception of cycling and work I could’ve bought the lot. Eventually, after much dithering I settled on Mindfulness & the Natural World, a very good choice as it turned out.
Every book on meditation and mindfulness I have bought so far talks about some variation of the mind as sky or a train line and thoughts as clouds or trains. These metaphors have been worse than useless for me as my earlier descriptions testify (see link above). This book is the very first which holds a description I can really relate to. Claire Thompson writes (page 40-41):
An image I find helpful to illustrate the practice of mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings is to imagine swimming in an ocean. The waves are your thoughts and emotions and they will take you where they please. Now imagine you are on a surfboard, riding the waves and enjoying the ride as waves come and go. You can even watch the waves go by.
Mindfulness is your surfboard. Your thoughts and emotions are all transitory. If we notice this, they no longer need to dictate our behaviour. . . . . Of course, riding a surfboard takes a lot of practice, and so does mindfulness. We all fall off the surfboard occasionally. But that’s fine. We can just hop right back on.
This was quite an uncanny correspondence, given how closely in time I found the book after I had had the dream.
Whether all this recent watery imagery of tears and waves is anything to do with my being a Pisces, I doubt. I think, if anything, it relates to my highly kinaesthetic take on the world of imagination and memory. Why there are so few books on meditation with so little awarenesss of this dimension of processing when it comes to thoughts, I’m not sure.
There is, of course, the endemic emphasis on following the breath and body scanning, which is fine, but these are seen as ways of anchoring the mind so it does not get carried away by currents of thought. When it comes to descriptions of disengaging from our thoughts and feelings, they’re stuck on how you simply ‘watch’ your thoughts as, like ‘clouds,’ they float across the ‘sky’ of your mind.
‘Get real!’ I’ve growled to myself a thousand times.
Well, at last I’ve found a description that works for me.
‘Really!’ I hear you mutter. ‘That is weird.’
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 second part of the sixth post.
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!
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.
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 first part of the sixth 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fifth 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.