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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Seven IllusionsGiven that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. This is the final post of the sequence.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the last of three parts. The first post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The previous post focused on the importance of meditation and its challenges. This third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why we should change our priorities.

Karen makes a compelling case, I feel.

As the quotation from Bahá’u’lláh at the end of the previous post implies, it all comes down to a question of priorities. She makes this point strongly (750):

If you put half of the energy you put into work and making money into meditating, you may become enlightened in a year!! Your choice, your will, your life.

If Ehrenfeld is to be believed in his book Flourishing the world will be a far better place simply as a result of this, as well.

Karen is particularly telling in her use of analogies again here (1045)

In general we do not identify with our cars and believe that`s all we are. We do know it`s just a vehicle, and it`s not because the car dies that we will die with it. We know that we will move on. It is exactly the same with our body. By the way, notice that we always say ‘our’ body, like we say ‘our car’ or ‘our house’, something that we possess not something that we are.

This makes for an interesting take on death, which is borne out by the accounts of those who have survived close encounters with the scythe-bearing skeleton (1131): ‘Death is just the end of the vehicle, not the passenger.’

Then we draw close again to the No-Self issue and the movie character analogy (1255-65):

. . . . really who are you? By now you know that you are not your body, you are not your mind, and death doesn`t exist. The ‘you’ you believe in is the one which is not real. It is the one which will die when the body dies. . . . The biggest illusion is to believe that we are the car. That`s a reason why we are so scared of dying, because we know for sure that the car will die. There is no doubt about that. They all die. But we are not the car. We are not the character. And we do not die. The thing is that by identifying too much with the character, we forget who we really are.

The word ‘character’ pins down a key point. In a way there is an unintended pun here. Character can refer either to a person in a novel, play or film script, or it can be used to describe that aspect of a person that has a moral dimension. (In this context I fell over a deliberate pun which I can’t resist sharing. We are dealing with a car-actor here!)

This for me homes in on part of what freeing ourselves from character in the first sense enables us to achieve in terms of creating character in the second sense. The contrast is perhaps most easily captured by the idea of personality (from the Latin persona, meaning a theatrical mask and later the character in a play) versus character (from the Greek, originally also meaning a protagonist in a play, but moving through Aristotle’s emphasis on an ethical dimension to signify something closer to integrity). Meditation enables us to disidentify with the mask we wear, our personality, and to discover who we really are, to become our true selves, if you like.

She goes onto discuss the importance of love and of giving, and how much better it is for us than pursuing our own material advantage (1388-1397):

Our true self is not capable of hurting anyone, of killing, of damaging or stealing other people’s goods. We need to put a costume on in order to achieve that. . . . . your real self is all about giving. Giving is feeding your soul. Seeing the happiness on someone else`s face because of what you gave them, will fill your heart with much more joy than a free meal ticket.

As we have discussed on this blog, for instance in the context of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – 1456) ‘The veryACT manual common ‘I don`t feel like it’ may only be another trick from your ego to prevent you from realizing who you are.’

ACT takes the view that if we wait until we feel like doing something, we may well never do it. Doing it will make us feel better so we need to get on with it no matter how we feel to start with. In this context, we must accept though, at the same time, that the main rewards of meditation may not come quickly (1478):

You cannot change everything in one day. It will happen progressively. The changes won`t happen faster than you can handle them. If you work on yourself, you will experience the changes as perfect gradual steps, like a beautiful flower gently blossoming.

And we should not have grandiose ideas about how what we can then do will change the world. People who have trodden the path tell a different story (1494):

They don`t talk about changing the world, they perform little or big acts of kindness every day. It may be the family guy who volunteers once a week at his local charity, the kid who shares his lunch with his friend, the lady who feeds the birds in the garden, and the activists who spend months of their life trying to stop whaling.

This is very much in line with the Bahá’í model of community building, the first stage of civilisation building, which starts small but gradually influences greater numbers of people until a tipping point is reached: this will inevitably be ‘the work of centuries.’ Whether we reach the tipping point before we destroy ourselves will depend upon our choices.

She is on similar ground to ACT again when she discusses the nature of suffering (1535):

There are two types of pain: physical pain, which is as much real as our body is, and emotional pain which is as much an illusion as our mind is.

ACT clarifies that pain is what life brings: suffering is what we add to it by what our minds make of it. Karen begins to tread the same ground.

She begins by looking at emotion (1550-53):

Without emotion we just see life as it exactly is, with a clear perception and without any projections. Without emotion we just become watchers of this movie we are playing. We do not try to change it or wish for it to be different because we REALLY DON`T MIND how it is and how it will end up. Without emotion there is no suffering. . . . . . Emotional suffering is in the mind and the mind only. The pain we experience exists because there is a dichotomy between what is and what we want.

Part of the problem is the sense of separateness (1583): ‘Because we believe ourselves separated we`ve become blind to the perfection and the interconnectedness of all things.’ As some spiritual traditions explain it, because we are underneath the woven carpet of creation, as it were, we see only the knots and tangles and not the pattern.

We have to have faith in the existence of a pattern even if we cannot see it (1595-98):

True faith is not blind faith. True faith comes from knowledge. It comes from learning about life, about God and about yourself.  . . . . Connection is very important to our well being. We need to find connection with life, with people, and with nature. Connection brings us closer to oneness.

This resonates with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Who also makes the same kind of link with deeds as Karen does at various points: ‘By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

Here is where things get momentarily slightly confused for me. She begins by saying that (1648): ‘Emotions and feelings help us determine what is good for us, and what is not.’ However, even though the phrasing here suggests they are equivalent what she then says suggests there is a definite distinction in her mind (1652): ‘One is real, the other is an illusion. Feelings are the language of our soul, whereas emotion is the reaction of the mind. Our emotions are our reactions to the world.’

The value of the distinction is then unpacked in more detail (1654 through 1674):

. . . . feelings are our guidance, and instead of being our ‘reactions’ they are our creations. . . . . Feelings are our intuition. . . . . Anger, fear, sadness, pain, frustration, etc, are what we call bad emotions. And joy, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, excitement, etc, are what we call good emotions. But in both cases they are just illusions.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

I think she is basically correct here. However, my personal view is that greater clarity comes from using feeling and emotion as equivalent, so that ‘gut feeling’ can be seen as a product of the reptilian brain and therefore not to be relied upon. Intuition, as distinct from instinct, needs to be reserved for those intimations and promptings from our spirit that can be relied upon. I have dealt with this at great length elsewhere in my discussion of Kahneman’s ideas. Karen’s terminology, though less than optimal in my view, does not distract from the power and relevance of the points she is making.

I do have serious reservations though about the way she phrases her suggestions as to how to deal with emotion (1678): ‘if you are angry, be angry totally.’

I’m not sure this is a helpful way to express what I think she might mean. I feel containment in full awareness is a better way of putting it. This allows you to steer between acting out and repression and also enables you to find the most constructive way of expressing the anger should you chose to do so. At the very least you will be able to integrate it.

In the end though, in spite of all my grumblings here and there, I feel that this is an immensely valuable book. It has helped me in my quest for a deeper experience of my own true nature, though this is still proving quite a challenge. I think the benefits of reading Karen’s powerful insights and following her personal journey far outweigh any disagreements I might have with aspects of her philosophy.

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Seven Illusions

Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I shared in the first post have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The final post will appear tomorrow.

I prefaced this review-sequence of posts about Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, partly by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Also, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

This is the second of three parts. The previous post looked at her basic intention and flagged up a couple of caveats from my point of view. This post focuses on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

Why meditation matters

Part of what relates to the importance of meditation, I’ve dealt with in a previous post, which focused on the No-Self issue so I will not revisit that here. What follows will inevitably have implications that are relevant to that issue also.

To describe our life as we perceive it, Karen uses the metaphor of a film to convey that what we experience is only a simulation and not reality. To over-identify with our character, in the Hollywood sense, is to surrender to the illusion and we can choose otherwise (429):

You have the free will of letting the Ego control you, or you can become the master and start living the movie through a totally different perspective.

She argues that (433): ‘To find yourself and to find presence, meditation is the best tool that you have.’

Even so, the task that confronts us will not be easy. Our movie role will not give up without a fight (435):

The Ego, the mind will try to prevent it, it will do anything to stop it. Of course, because the more you do it, the more IT will disappear.

She clarifies what we must do in response (437):

The challenge is to still do it under any circumstances, despite what is being said inside your head.

She shares some of her most telling insights and useful analogies here to help us see what we must do and why (531):

. . . when we are listening to the mind, we find ourselves in the past or a probable future. It is really an amazing tool, which is here to help us survive in a physical body in this three dimensional world. The problem is that we forget that it is just that, a tool, a computer. Over the years we put effort into making it strong, sharp and intelligent. Unfortunately, we overuse it and we forget to turn it off.

This is territory that Hanson and Mendius also explore from their slightly different and somewhat more academic angle. They Buddha Brainanalyse in some depth the neuropsychology of this survival tool from the perspective of brain science.

Karen is very clear about the trap that has been sprung on us by the worldly and practical success of our survival tool (535):

After a while we even forget that we are actually separate from it. This is the biggest illusion, the identification with the mind.

I might want to take issue with her terminology here, when she is discussing what she refers to as the ‘mind’ (582-89):

It is a computer, gathering, analyzing data and offering solutions. It never stops. It is restless. We made it that way. It will only exist in time, in the past or in the future, and it will always try to escape the present, because in the NOW the mind is not. . . . The main problem is that the brain takes everything the mind thinks as real. For the brain there are no differences between an actual physical danger, and your mind thinking about a fictional, imaginary danger.

This conflicts with the understanding I have developed after years of reconciling psychology with Bahá’í spirituality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us that the mind is an emanation of the spirit and not a product of the brain: this fits with the idea of the brain not the mind as a transceiver, ie it both receives and generates data as the computer does. The brain therefore can be seen in this version of the model as the source of ‘static’ that interferes with our access to the mind, which is our direct link to the world of spirit. However, I don’t think this possible quibble should deter us from recognizing the value of what she then goes on to say on the back of this analogy. Her core point is none the less clear (599-600):

If the mind is only a computer, then it is there for someone to use it: you.  The mind is just a tool, but a wonderful tool. The only problem is the common mistake of identifying with that tool. . . . . You need to find yourself. You need to find where and who you are. And I will say it again: meditation is the only means through which you are going to find these answers.

This does not mean that we should devalue what she calls the mind (613-621):

First of all, it does help you take care of your body to survive in the world. . . . . Secondly, it enables us to project ourselves in time, in the past and in the future, so we can understand what went wrong and avoid the same mistakes, and we can anticipate and plan for our future. . . . . Then, the mind helps us to tap into and translate information from the spirit world, . . . . . Also, a clear, focused and pointed mind will help us achieve anything we dream of. . . . . . Last, but not least, the mind will translate into words your true being, your soul.

Also that description indicates to me that her concept of mind is closer to that of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá than her original points suggested.

Nor do I want to argue with her next main point (622):

Our essence, our soul is energy and only energy. It does not communicate with language. It communicates with impressions, feelings, and intuitions.

She then moves onto a theme close to my heart (sorry if that sounds like a joke!) and one dealt with in some detail already on this blog so I won’t dwell at length on it here (625):

We are under the impression that our head says something and our heart, our inside, is trying to say something else. Believe me, in these situations, always listen to your heart. Always.

A key point comes slightly later and, though apparently simple, is in my view of profound importance, not just in terms of schooling, which is her point at the time, but for all of us throughout our lives (677): ‘we are not taught how not to use the mind when we do not need it.’ This is something crucial which it is never too late to learn.

ThriveShe emphasises that (677) children, if properly taught, ‘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.’ And also, I would say, to gain access to other aspects of consciousness with different powers. Layard and Clark are similarly advocating the teaching of mindfulness in schools in their book Thrive, reviewed earlier on this blog Unfortunately there is little sign yet that schooling will shift from its current reinforcement of the language-bound ruminating mind any time soon.

One of the challenges of undertaking meditation is that the rewards, in terms for example of a quietness and expansion of consciousness, cannot be experienced except as a result of meditation itself, so we have to embark on an effortful discipline motivated by faith alone. She puts it succinctly (716):

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself.

Even so (722) ‘Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.’

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, says essentially the same thing (Gleanings: CLIII):

Deprive not yourselves of the unfading and resplendent Light that shineth within the Lamp of Divine glory. Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. . . . O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets. . . . This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.

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Given that sequences on this blog are dealing in one way or another with our need to break through to wiser levels of consciousness, it seemed worth republishing this short sequence from 2014. The reservations I share at the start have come to seem a familiar response of mine to texts that combine wise insights with what strikes me as fantasy. None the less the insights make books such as this one worth flagging up. The remainder of the sequence will follow on consecutive days.Seven Illusions

I need to preface this review of Karen Wilson’s 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are with an explanation of why it has been somewhat delayed, and not just by my feeling that I needed to publish the post on the No-Self issue first.

Basically, I was planning to do a simple review but the book raises so many fascinating issues it was hard to resist launching into a full-blown commentary. Hopefully, with the delay, I have been able to balance the need to flag up meaningful echoes while remaining sufficiently focused on the text itself to do it justice as I feel it is an insightful and honest exploration from direct experience of various challenges to and rewards for the serious meditator.

Another reason it has taken some time to get round to publishing this is that there are parts of the book I can’t buy into and generally I don’t review anything about which I have such significant reservations in terms of the central message. However, I am also aware that I have learnt a great deal from the book, which is rooted in her direct experience of the matters she speaks of. She says much that touches me deeply. It doesn’t seem fair not to bring such gems to people’s attention when my reservations might be my blinkers.

This is the first of three parts dealing with her basic intention and flagging up a couple of caveats from my point of view. The next post will focus on the importance of meditation and its challenges. The third post will look at the shift in priorities involved and what we might learn from that.

The Purpose of the Book

As I understand it the book it written to encourage us all to build our search for happiness and fulfillment on a sounder basis (Kindle Reference 70):

[This] is what you have been looking for and searching for all your life. But you were scared, and instead of looking inside you went to look outside.

Changing the direction of our gaze (111) moves us towards ‘[b]ecoming the person you`ve always wanted to be’ which, she feels would be ‘the real source of happiness and as such the real and only thing worth manifesting?’

Part of this process will involve our spotting negative thoughts (156) and ‘counteract[ing] them with positive affirmations.’ ThisBuddha Brain of course is easier said than done given the Teflon tendencies for positive thought discussed in the Buddha’s Brain book already reviewed.

The core aspect of happiness she defines as follows (248):

As we`ve seen before, happiness is the contentment with what is. It is not wishing for life to be different. It is not wanting something that we don`t have.

This is a question of choice (313):

In a nutshell, things are as they are, whether you cry or laugh because of them is your choice. Choosing happiness or unhappiness, anger or compassion, worry or trust, fear or love are our main choices in life.

We can also choose how we respond to the testing behavior of other people, with potentially constructive consequences (372):

Someone is verbally attacking you, calling you names. You can consciously choose to stay at their level and send the same back, or you can choose to send some kind words instead. You should try it once, no argument can last more than a minute if one party is sending love back at anger, negative energy cannot be sustained on love.

In speaking of the way we think about the future she revisits familiar territory reminiscent of the Twain/Montaigne problem – ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened’ – but pointing out that positive as well as negative expectations can be equally pointless (396):

Guess what: ninety nine percent of your thoughts about the imaginary future will not happen. What you are so scared of happening will not happen. The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen. What you are doing now by thinking about the future is wasting your present.

It’s in the process of unfolding this explanation that she brings in the stumbling blocks for me – first of all, her reincarnation model.

For reasons I have explored at some length, this view of the afterlife is not one I find easy to accept. I won’t rehearse all my arguments here. I will simply state her position without further comment. She believes (308):

. . . . souls choose to incarnate on the earth for the purpose of learning, growing and helping others. They know what they need to work on, and also what they need to do to achieve their goals. So they have a pretty good idea of the life they need. Then, they plan very carefully their next incarnation, choosing their place, date, and family of birth.

She uses this model to explain certain types of evil (423):

You see, if someone wants to experience forgiveness, and needs someone to hurt her/ him, someone else needs to be the malevolent actor. How can a beautiful soul full of love and light harm anyone?

I think it best to leave the readers of this post to make up their own mind on this one.

The second stumbling block is to do with the power of positive thought to change what happens.

Her often repeated belief is that if you believe confidently enough that your needs will be met or your problems solved, they assuredly will be. A succinct statement of this kind of thinking is if, for example when you are in dire financial straits (336), ‘You trust that enough money will come to cover your needs’ then ‘it always does.’ She explains more fully later with an example from her own experience (1615):

. . . one day, when my car broke down at a time in my life when I had no fixed income, a very high rent, and when I  needed to come up with a couple of thousand dollars in two weeks, I totally panicked. My mind repeated ‘I’ll be ok’, ‘I’ll get the money’; yet my body was stressing as much as it used to. Hadn`t I learned my lessons? Of course the money came, in unexpected ways, at the right time, and exactly the amount I needed…silly me. I KNEW IT!

But for some people the money doesn’t come – and it’s too easy to say that this is because of their negative attitude.

Much as I value her authentic experiences of meditation, I am not convinced by this anecdote that this is a general truth. I think there are far too many examples in the world as a whole of widespread and persistently unremedied suffering for me to accept that kind of claim. I also find myself wondering where her mocking reference to positive fantasies about the future – ‘The house you would buy if you win the lottery will not happen’ – leaves her on the power of positive thoughts issue.

However, in spite of what I perceive as these blemishes, the book as a whole has a great deal of value to offer. Except for her reincarnation model and the power of positive thoughts issue, I have no problem with any of this, which maps onto much of the literature from which I have already learnt so much.

With one minor exception, I will from now on focus on the positives, as they far outweigh these reservations.

trigger for meditation

After this nit-picking and before pausing until the next post on this topic, I feel I need to end with a longer quote from Karen’s book to illustrate why I find it so valuable. It is the way she manages at times to fuse a compelling and vivid account of her direct experience with an explanation of some of its implications. These are the gems that make the book so well worth reading. I find such passages moving as well as inspiring and convincing – and there are many of them.

SILENCE

. . . what you want to find is silence. Silence inside your own head. Now I couldn`t imagine living again with incessant chatter in my mind. I love that silence. I love that peace. And I love the ability to gently disregard the thoughts which I don`t want. In that silence, in that space where there are no thoughts, in that absolute peace, I bathe in awareness. I bathe in being.

Now it feels as if I used to be buried behind layers and layers of incessant, illogical, and uncoordinated thoughts. But one day I finally emerged. One day I found myself deep into my own abyss. And since then I have remained at the surface, always breathing, always being. And only when I managed to come to the surface did I finally see reality as it was.

I now see the world clearly and simply, without judgment, without descriptions, without words inside my head to tell me how it is. That space in between thoughts is a special place. It is where everything is. It is where everything comes from. That place of silence is a pure magical beauty. It needs to be experienced to be understood. The mind cannot fathom just a portion of that reality.

That silence and that space cannot be understood at all by the mind or the intellect as it is a no-mind place. The only way to comprehend it is to experience it, to live it. You need to find it for yourself. You need to look within. Go inside yourself and find this beautiful sacred place. Once you find this silence, you will be overwhelmed by its music. It is a deep sense of knowing and of purpose, a feeling of finally being home.

Then you`ll never want to come back to the busyness, to the craziness, to the chaotic world of the mind where only fear reigns. The silence is what you were always looking for. That`s where YOU are. Everybody is looking for themselves, they just don`t look in the right place. You will find yourself in this silence. You will find yourself out of the mind. Really, it is so simple, so close, and so easy. Enlightenment is not something far away and complicated to reach. It has always been there, inside you, easy to grasp, just waiting for you to be ready.

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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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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.

Sam Harris meditation pic

Meditation from Article by Sam Harris

 

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.

I remembered the story about a well-known Bahá’í, Dorothy Baker, who had a serious and almost fatal car-accident on a steep mountain road.

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.

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Rossiter Books (for source of image see link)

Rossiter Books (for source of image see link)

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.

Dream.

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.

Day Residue

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.

Mindfulness Nature

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.’

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bubbles

For source of image see link

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! 

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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