The Saucepan

There is a perception that meditation and mindfulness connect us with a feeling of relaxed and contented peacefulness. Listening to meditation music we could be forgiven for thinking that mindfulness is some kind of mystical experience.

But meditation and mindfulness in reality simply connect us with how we are feeling right now; good or bad. I’ve experienced meditation as deeply calming and relaxing, but I’ve also found it puts me in touch with the fact that right now I’m feeling pretty pissed off.

That sounds like common sense, if not a little disillusioning, but if we meditate with the expectation that it’s going to be a happy experience then it comes as a disappointment when we come face to face with our own grouchiness and irritability.

Usually when we feel bad we find ways and means of escaping. We turn on the telly, go on the internet and do just about anything to escape from feeling horrid. Over the years, we get so good at escaping that we can spend hours zoned out, absent from ourselves, and stubbornly avoiding the experience of how bad we feel right now.

Why would we want to meditate and be mindful when we feel bad? Particularly, when by being mindful we come face to face with just how miserable it is to feel down. Why not hit the default option and escape into distraction.

Of course, the reason for not escaping is that as unpleasant as it is to feel bad, it is at these times that we can learn most about ourselves. We might not be able to escape our black moods, but there is a chance we might find other, healthier ways of dealing with them.

So, how do we stay engaged with meditation or mindfulness when we drop in on ourselves at a bad time? When the last thing we want is visitors, especially our annoying, curious, mindful self.

I found Jon Kabat-Zinn has a wonderful analogy for mindfulness; he compares it to a large saucepan, and suggests that without getting caught up in the thoughts and feelings that we discover during meditation we simply toss them into the pot and see what happens.

I love the imagery of this dispassionate curiosity. I can almost see myself shrugging my shoulders, picking up that strange heavy feeling, observing it with idle curiosity, and then dropping it into the saucepan. To add to the analogy, I imagine myself gently stirring it with a wooden spoon while simmering on a low heat. The whole imagery allows me to loosen the strong grip that feelings and emotions hold on me, and gives me the opportunity to observe what I am experiencing at these difficult times.

Thich Nhat Hahn has some great advice on this subject too; he recommends that when we encounter those familiar bad old feelings we should smile gently at them and say, “Hello my old friend, how are you?”

Of course, we shouldn’t just treat the bad feelings in this way; a truly mindful approach would be to treat both good and bad feelings in the same manner, with compassion and gentle inquiry. To quote Kipling, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”

So if meditation isn’t actually a mystical experience, a transcendent visit to a fantasy world. If it is simply a more alert and aware experience of how we are feeling right now; good or bad. Then developing a means of disconnecting our self from the power of our thoughts and feelings is important, otherwise we will continue to run from the bad and celebrate the good.

So next time before you meditate, gently oil your saucepan, put it on a low heat, and wait patiently with your wooden spoon until your ingredients pop up, whatever they are!

The Buddha & the Clock

Now carries us in Life’s stream.
Reveals worlds of Being and Doing.
Accepts everything the way it is,
And builds a Peace in Life’s turmoil.

In silent meditation the Buddha sat,
Surrounded by a sea of tranquility.
But by the bedside a little Clock,
Ticked out these words continuosly.

Time plucks us from Life’s stream.
Consumes us in Regret and Fantasy.
Sets us on a wheel of striving.
And brings a Despair to Life’s affair.

By me. Inspired by William Blake’s “The Clod & the Pebble”

The description of Mindfulness as remaining aware while we move from moment to moment conjures up the image of Mindfulness as a series of steps. Its an image that I’m not comfortable with, as I have the feeling that it’s the tail wagging the dog.

Without being able to fully express it, I have the sense that our perception of Time is very similar to the illusion that the Sun is revolving around the Earth. To all intents and purposes its our reality, its what our senses and perception tell us what’s happening.

While on a weekend away recently, I was watching the river Shannon in full flood as it flowed through the town of Killaloe. This is the largest river in the British Isles and at Killaloe the Shannon is funneled through a narrow strait between two Loughs. Its an impressive sight to see such a large body of water moving at such a pace.

As I watched I had a strong insight that the flow of a river is a wonderful metaphor for Mindfulness, and that Time is nothing more than a marker on the river bank.

Time has a dominance in our lives, we are immersed in the concept of  Time by our clocks, our calendars, and our schedules. What if Time is just an illusion? What if the only thing that is fixed is Now, and Time is nothing more than the view from the ship’s bridge.

Wouldn’t that be incredibly liberating.



The first and last milestone


There is an indian proverb that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

Over the last several years, on each occasion that I’ve taken stock of my life and looked with fresh and revitalised eyes for a path to follow, I’ve found myself returning to this simple proverb.  It’s like the first milestone I pass on every journey I take and the last milestone I pass on my return home.

As I set out again on another journey, the proverb of the four rooms will be my guide, my path, and my destination.

In each of the four rooms I hope to focus on four distinct qualities.

The Mind Room

  • Focus – to deal with distractions and teach my mind to become still and focused.
  • Mindfulness – to train my mind to be awake, aware and grounded in the now.
  • Strength – to develop a quiet strength and  improve my willpower.
  • Solitude – to learn the art of solitude, to be comfortable in my own space.

The Body Room

  • Sleep – to go to bed early and live each day, refreshed, alert and energised.
  • Food – to eat well and give my body the right fuel to be active and alert.
  • Exercise – to energise my mind and body through regular exercise.
  • Yoga – to develop awareness and remain flexible in mind and body.

The Spirit Room

  • Meditation – to connect with Being through meditation and prayer.
  • Spiritual Development – to walk the Eightfold Path.
  • Dharma – to develop my spiritual understanding.
  • Sangha – to connect with others through spiritual learning and practise.

The Emotions Room

  • Awareness – to develop awareness of the interplay of my emotions.
  • Measure – to record my emotions and moods to gain a better understanding of them.
  • Develop – to seek to develop emotional intelligence and balance.
  • Fun – to enjoy life.

 What is the first and last milestone on your path?


Fun – and how to get it back

Laughing girls, Mumbai

Is it just me? Or does our sense of fun seem to have slowly slipped away from us?

Kids have that natural, high energy, sense of fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we all run around like a bunch of five years olds on a sugar high. But, perhaps its worth considering just how we let fun ebb away from us, and why it is that sometimes we find ourselves beached on a shore of dissatisfaction.

I guess there’s lot of reasons why it happened, some personal and some shared.

I know that my father despairs of me as introspective, the guy permanently parked in the self-help section at the local bookshop. But if you spend as much time there as me you’ll have noticed that the pursuit of happiness has become the Holy Grail of the 21st century. There are so many journeymen; buddhist monks, celebrity psychologists, and contemporary gurus who all want to help us fill that strange hole that has appeared right in the middle of our lives.

For me, Tim Ferriss nailed it in his best seller ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’ when he said, “Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and  it is precisely what you should strive to chase.” I agree, but if I may be allowed to add a little English reserve, I prefer to call it ‘Fun’.

I can think of lots of good reasons to explain how we managed to get separated from our sense of fun.

I mean doesn’t life inevitably descend into a mundane routine of work, family, and Monday mornings? Isn’t that enough to sap even the most fun loving person’s energy? It’s a defect of human nature that after a while we just get used to all the everyday wonders of living and start taking them for granted. This includes our loved ones too.

Aren’t we all guilty of putting a safe and secure comfort zone around us that protects us from unnecessary excitement?

At a more troubling level there is the incessant distraction of a 24/7 connected world with its abundance of social networks. Have we become dependent on the ability to escape at a moments notice to this virtual world? When we lose face to face connection do our relationships also lose real meaning? Can we honestly replace a smile with a smiley?

As we become more distracted we become more vulnerable to being caught in a strong flow which has its own direction and purpose. Unlike the still waters of solitude we lose the ability to decide where it is we want to swim to and what it is we want to explore. Instead we are pulled into the mainstream where choices are made for us, often without our perception.

Is it any wonder that before long we find ourselves stranded on a beach of dissatisfaction with a gaping hole in the middle of our lives.

So here’s my challenge. Let’s do something about it!

Let’s get that sense of fun back in our lives! Its time to wake up and smell the roses, coffee, and perhaps also that troubling smell that seems to hang around the spare room.

Getting that sense of fun back into our lives is going to be a project that requires an investment of effort and its very own toolbox.

We’re going to need to open a few gaps in the barrier that marks out our comfort zone and let in a little excitement. We’ll need to sprinkle some fun into our daily routines to add a little zest. Also, I suggest we take gratitude out of the tool box, sharpen it up, and stop taking the best things in our lives for granted.

Perhaps its time to look at our internet and tv habits. I remember reading the definition of ‘opportunity cost’ in my son’s economics textbook. The ‘opportunity cost’ of these habits is all the other things we could be doing instead. Are we buying fun or just deepening our sense of dissatisfaction? How deep are we in the grip of these habits, what level of distraction do they exert on us? Are we swimming in still waters or being swept away by a strong current? Two more tools we’ll need are, focus and willpower.

Of all the enemies of fun, the worst is feeling bad. We can’t feel good and bad at the same time, its just not possible. Compassion is the tool we’ll need to fight this, first for ourselves, and then for others.

Having second thoughts? Getting fun back is beginning to sound more like an ordeal than a pursuit of pleasure. But real fun, real fulfilment, is not about munching on lotuses, its about achievement.

For the last 14 years I worked for myself until I lost my business in the last recession. Now I’m a paid hand again and I work for a global multinational in an office with several hundred other people. I thought this was going to be a depressing experience. However, one of the first things I do every morning is to walk up to the coffee machine with a friend for a chat. He never lost his sense of fun and every morning is a pleasure, every morning I laugh. This one person energizes the start of my day, every day, and makes me realise…

We can get our sense of fun back, we just need to work on it!

What little thing adds fun to your day?

(Photo Credit Wernher Krutein – Flickr Photostream)

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate

The very first step in entering a mindful state is to make the decision to awaken.

To decide is defined as, “come or bring to a resolution in the mind as a result of consideration.”  Paradoxically therefore, the mind awakens and faces a choice; to remain awake and mindful, or to return to an absent and mindless state.

The mechanism of a decision is that it is a choice between outcomes or paths. In choosing we perform the action of decision, and we pass from one state to another. Our decision to awaken then has three components; a choice, an action, and a movement.

The Gateless Gate is a symbol of the entrance to mindfulness.

It embodies all three components of the decision to meditate and as a symbol says so much more.

The Gateless Gate is always open, it is available to us 24/7, it never closes. There is no key or lock, no latch or handle, or gate. There is no obstacle or obstruction that prevents or hinders us from passing through the gap at any time.

Similarly, the Gateless Gate is an opening in a wall that divides two states, mindfulness and mindlessness. To move from an absent state to an aware state we must pass through the opening.

The image of the Gateless Gate allows us to choose, act and pass into the state of awareness.