July 23, 2011

Are You Ready For The Mindfulness Revolution? Part Two

Part Two: Restless Cows

As mentioned in my previous article, this summer I found myself completely captivated by quite an unexpected page-turner: The Mindfulness Revolution published recently by Shambhala. It’s a collection of articles by eminent meditation teachers, thinkers, scientists, and academics who share their lifetime personal and professional experience with mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Siegel, Matthieu Ricard, Chogyam Trungpa, and Pema Chodron to name a few.

It’s an incredibly thought-provoking read; so much so that I’ve decided to use it to write a series of articles on mindfulness and its daily life applications this summer in Elephant Journal.

This week, before getting into more specific subjects, I’m looking at the mindfulness practice itself.

‘Some of The Worst Things In My Life Never Happened’

This quote by Mark Twain keeps on popping up in my mind since I’ve read it in Joseph Goldstein’s article ‘Here, Now, Aware’. He uses it to illustrate that ‘This habit of wandering mind is very strong, even when our reveries aren’t pleasant, and perhaps not even true.’

In challenging times, our minds can become addicted to stories, all kinds, of what might or should have happened and of what might and should happen. This seems to give us a sense of control over what can’t be changed, what can’t be predicted and what makes us suffer. We can end up feeding ourselves endless varieties of obsessions and fantasies as Jan Chozen Bays points out in ‘What Is Mindfulness?’:

‘The capacity of the human mind to fantasize is wonderful, the basis of all our creativity. It allows us to imagine new inventions, create new art and music, arrive at new scientific hypotheses, and make plans for everything from new buildings to new chapters of our lives. Unfortunately it can become an escape, an escape from the anxiety of not knowing what is actually moving toward us, the fear that the next moment (or hour or day or year) could bring us difficulties or even death.’

Sometimes, if, without realising it, we take an unpleasant turn in our train of thoughts, we can find ourselves living in a Matrix-type fantasy world, our own post-apocalyptic thriller of negative projections. Mindfulness can allow us to come back to what really is, switch off our automatic pilot and take a much deserved break. As Jan Chozen Bays explains:

‘When we allow the mind to rest in the present, full of what is actually happening right now, redirecting it away from repeated fruitless excursions into the past of future or fantasy realms, we are doing something very important: conserving the energy of the mind. It remains fresh and open, ready to respond to whatever appears before it. […] We forget though, the mind needs rest too. Where it finds rest is in the present moment, where it can lie down and relax into the flow of events.’

Eternal Sunshine Of The Curious Mind

The mind can sometimes be the most unreliable narrator, yet we find comfort in its habits, in its routines, even if they can prove unhealthy: all-or-nothing thinking (never, always statements), overgeneralization, labeling (I’m lazy, stupid, etc.), comparing (I’m not as good as).

Our brains can do this to us sometimes; we’ve found ourselves in a situation a number of times and solved it one way, and it uses this solution as a shortcut each time it encounters similar conditions, even if this reaction was unskillful in the first instance. An initial error of perception might cause us to repeat the same mistake again and again, ad nauseum. Mindfulness invites us to adopt a fresh approach to life experiences and hence to react in a more helpful way.

One of the words that is often used in mindfulness-based therapies is curiosity. If variety is the spice of life, curiosity is its sweetness. Susan Smalley and Diana Winston in ‘Is Mindfulness For You?’ write: ‘Spicing up life with mindfulness can change the way you approach ordinary activities and bring you new enthusiasm and joy.’

There is a child-like quality to curiosity, it’s what in our formative years enables us to grow. Children need that ‘why…?’ phase to start making sense of the world. Babies can’t talk but they are all eyes and ears, marvelling at any sight or sound. When do we lose this curiosity? When do we become so jaded with the ordinary that our pleasures need to become each time more elaborate? Reconnecting with this fundamental freshness allows us to find wonder in the humdrum of the everyday again.

In their article about mindfulness and photography, Andy Carr and Michael Wood dismantle the myth of the artistic life as extraordinary :

‘We are not interested in the unusual, but in the usual seen unusually. […] Trying to live an exceptional, beautiful life will only alienate you from the ordinary. Instead, the way to live artistically is to conduct ordinary activities in a relaxed and attentive way.’

Back to 3D

Nowadays, our perception can become so locked into the two-dimensional, asceptic and square field of vision that are computer/TV/phone screens, that we often lose touch with the flesh, fragrance, flavour, music and endless nuances of colours that the world has on offer constantly.

We are sometimes brought back to this reality by a vivid sensation; a scrumptious dish, the fresh wind on your cheeks, the bright red of poppies in a field, a catchy tune on the radio. I’ve noticed that when I manage to extricate my mind from its worries and decide to consciously draw my attention to the real world, everything comes back to 3D; lines, perspectives, shapes, colours, sounds, textures appear again. When riding a torrent of thoughts, the world becomes the blurry, shapeless, odourless background against the meandering of our minds.

Room for Boredom

The Mindfulness Revolution includes a wonderful article by Chogyam Trungpa who wrote:

‘Meditation is giving a huge, luscious meadow to a restless cow. The cow might be restless for a while in its huge meadow, but at some stage, because there is so much space, the restlessness becomes irrelevant. So the cow eats and eats and eats and relaxes and falls asleep.’

One of the basic ways of pratising mindfulness is through meditation. At first, meditation however is not always what one would expect as Jack Kornfield explains in ‘A Receptive, Respectful Awareness’: ‘When people initially come to a meditation class to train in mindfulness, they hope to become calm and peaceful. Usually they are in for a big shock.’

This reminds me of my favourite meditation jokes from Seinfeld when Frank Costanza, learns relaxation with a tape. He ends up screaming ‘Serenity now!’ with an imploring hand gesture to the sky, to counteract every frustration in his life. Sometimes, it’s not that far from the truth; I sit in meditation and if things don’t go according to my expectations, my impatience would easily make me shout ‘serenity now!’.

Jack Kornfield continues:

‘The first hour of mindfulness meditation reveals its opposite, bringing an unseen stream of evaluation and judgment into stark relief. In the first hour, many of us feel bored and dislike the boredom.’

My first experience with meditation was funny, literally. I had been suffering from insomnia for months, and felt a Fight Club type of desperation that brought me to sitting in any support or social group that would have me even if I didn’t say much.

That’s how I ended up at my local Buddhist Centre in North London, hoping that a bit of meditation would finally do the trick. The meditation was called ‘awareness of the breath’, and as a smug yogi, I thought I could really skip the training bit. I removed my shoes, followed everyone in the room, and smiled to the other people, who seemed to know what they were doing. I picked a cushion and a blanket, and observed how everyone had their little rituals.

We all sat and the person leading the meditation said a few introductory words and then simply: ‘we will be meditating for 45 minutes, you all know what to do’. That’s when I realised I didn’t. What am I going to do for the next 45 minutes? I often respond to embarassment by humour, so even if I seriously tried to focus on my breath, sensations, etc. my mind favoured its own little comedy show. Instead of my breath, all I could hear was the voice of my inner clown. The incongruity of humour in those situations is exacerbated by the social inability to express it. I had to refrain from giggling like an uncomfortable teenager each time the bell chimed or when somebody snored.

It was a Bridget Jones kind of moment, the one when you ask yourself: how would you possibly volunteer to spend 45 minutes in silence in a room full of strangers, eyes closed, doing nothing? What’s wrong with going to the pub, drinking your mind into oblivion and talking nonsense very loudly with complete strangers? Which is what my meditation had consisted of for most of my adult life.

When I think back about it, it was a great first experience, it put me in the same room with my boredom -which is something I would never have signed up for- and showed me how I related to it.

Steve Silberman in ‘Digital Mindfulness’, a fascinating article to which I’ll come back later on in this series, also quotes Chogyam Trungpa: ‘The pratice of meditation can be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream.’

In this sense, in mindfulness pratice, boredom can work hand in hand with curiosity into unravelling the treasures of the ordinary. Andy Karr and Michael Wood write: ‘Life seems repetitive and boring when you don’t notice the uniqueness of each moment and the constant, subtle changes that are going on all around you.’

The Unbearable Effortlessness of Being?

The practice of mindfulness also makes some sceptical. I read Tim Lott in Psychologies write about his experience with Zen :

‘Zen criticises traditional Buddhist ideas of mindfulness, in the sense that it’s too effortful to achieve. Zen is pragmatic and all in favour of the shortcut. As one Zen master puts it, ‘Don’t be mindful, please. When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk’.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh in ‘Mindfulness Makes Us Happy’ makes it sound much easier and lighter; it’s all about finding enjoyment:

‘Mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, not work or effort. Do you have to make an effort to breath in? You don’t need to make an effort. To breathe in, you just breath in.[…] Allow your breath to take place. Become aware of it and enjoy it. Effortlessness. Enjoyment.’

His article is one of my favourites in The Mindfulness Revolution, because it makes the practice sound suddenly less intimidating, especially when he explains we’ve all got it in us to be happy and lead a mindful life:

‘Mindfulness is the energy that helps us recognize the conditions of happiness that are already present in our lives. You don’t have to wait ten years to experience this happiness. It is present in every moment of your daily life.’

Next instalment in this series is about my favourite thing: food. I already feel like a restless cow in a luscious meadow at the idea of writing about it, but I’ll eat, eat, eat and eventually relax.

Picture credits:

The Mindfulness Revolution – www.shambhala.com

Cows –  JelleS on Flickr

Meditation Area – kOa1a.net

Thich Nhat Hanh – pixiduc on Flickr

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