The Great River of Time

Returning to Ireland after visiting my parents in the UK I flew out of Stansted Airport and after passing through security I did the ‘IKEA walk’ to get to the departures lounge. This is a relatively recent addition to the airport and it simply means that to get from security to the departures lounge you have to walk a winding route past every shop in the airport.

Stansted is a busy airport and there is a constant flow of passengers making their way through the retail area. Most of the time you are carried along with the flow, but there is a constant need to adjust your pace and direction to avoid dawdling or distracted passengers. Sometimes someone has frustratingly come to a complete stop to check the contents of their suitcase, and there’s always the odd person swimming against the current like a salmon battling it’s way upstream.

On either sides of the path are a dazzling array of duty-free shops selling alcohol, tobacco, designer clothes, books, gifts and gadgets. They are brightly lit and decked out in the style, colours, and advertising images of their brands. Along the sides of the path are smartly dressed sales assistants holding out perfume sticks or small trays of tempting samples, like kingfishers watching intently for a bite.

The whole experience felt scripted and artificial, yet somehow I felt it was a metaphor for our human experience.

The River of Time.

The constant flow of passengers in which I was surrounded felt like an example of how humanity is swept along by the great River of Time. We share the illusion that we are standing still in life but this is only because we are all carried along at the same pace in the same current. We can all think of friends and acquaintances who at some time were central to our lives but who are now distant, separated from us by some event in the past, like the rocks and rapids that break up the linear flow of a river.

While we feel we are standing still, we are constantly adjusting our path and pace to make allowance for all the people and events that impact us every day. We don’t appreciate quite how much attention we expend at just keeping our place in the flow.

The Kingfishers of Attention

As a student in 1981 I spent a summer in what was then the communist country of Czechoslovakia and I remember the total absence of advertising and consumerism. We take our environment as a given and it doesn’t occur to us that it could be any other way. While there are few proponents of communism now, we should still recognise that one of the defining features of our society is consumerism and the constant quest to capture our attention through advertising, marketing and selling.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”
Herbert Simon

The glossy duty-free stores and the well dressed sales assistants offering free samples are symbolic of the constant sensory barrage on our attention, sometimes passive, sometimes intrusive. Behavioral psychology is deployed in the design of websites, games and social media, to keep us returning to them, building habits that are difficult to break.

Is it any wonder we don’t see the days, weeks, and months slip by as our attention is absorbed by our day to day struggles and the constant distractions seeking to capture our mind.

The Importance of Attention

When we begin to ‘see’ time flowing past us and the constant demands on our attention, we can begin to appreciate the importance of proactively directing our attention.

Mindfulness is the means by which we bring our attention to the here and now. To use the metaphor of the River of Time it is when we put our head above water to see where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

Lessons from the River of Time

Time is like the illusion of the sun circling the Earth, we think we are standing still while all the time we are spinning round the great clock face of Time. Unless we find a way of marking our passage, the days, weeks, months and years will pass by unnoticed until one day we will find the waters slowing and widening out towards the end of our journey.

If we wish to pilot our own course down the great River of Time then our greatest resource is our attention. It is only when we appreciate the constant demands on our attention that we can be realistic in our expectations of being more present in our lives.

Despite distraction, it is our choice on where we place our attention. Once we understand this we can begin to allocate it as the valuable resource it really is.

Mindfulness is the act of giving our attention intentionally. The very act of directing our attention proactively brings a quality of awareness that steps beyond our habitual and reactive thinking and doing. We empower ourselves.

We cannot stop the flow of Time, it extends from Eternity to Eternity. But we can begin to chart our course by showing up regularly to mark our position and keep a log of the times and places we visited along the way.

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The Great River of Time

The Challenge of Self Compassion

“We are that presence that is holding experience with kindness”
Tara Brach

In the Power of Awareness course Tara Brach gives a beautiful talk on the challenge of self compassion. It compliments an earlier concept in the course where Tara uses the image of mindfulness as a bird that needs two wings to fly. The first wing is to recognise what is happening, and the second wing is self compassion and kindness. Both wings are needed to fully achieve mindfulness.

In this talk Tara explains why the wing of self compassion is often ‘the missing ingredient’ and why it is so important.

I have not read Tara’s book Radical Acceptance, but I have the strong impression that this talk is at the core of Tara’s own practice and teachings. It is a passionate talk and in trying to pick out the key sentences you soon become aware that every word of the talk carries weight, meaning and resonance.

The War On Ourself

The central message is calling out the ‘trance of unworthiness’ that is pervasive in our society. The sense that ‘something is wrong with me,’ an insidious but deeply felt belief that we are somehow different from every one else.  In our mistaken belief we allow and expect to be treated differently, we consider ourselves unworthy of the same respect or rights that we unhesitatingly afford others.

This resonates deeply with me, how debilitating it is to lead our lives with this underlying sense that somehow we are falling short. We carry through our youth and adulthood this belief that we are not enough, that we are flawed in some way. We become a constant critic of our own actions, we stifle ourselves in self-judgment and self-criticism, we wage a war of attrition on ourselves.

When we have an inherent belief that we are unworthy we fear people will see through us, that they will find out who we truly are. In our unworthiness we expect disdain and derision.

It impacts everything

It’s impossible to realise our full potential when we believe we will always fall short. We are unable to take risks when our inner critic is terrified of ridicule. We can neither discover nor develop our creativity when we deny and dismiss our own ability.

We are limited in our ability to develop intimate relationships when we feel unworthy of love and kindness. We miss the beauty of the world when our attention is focused on constant self criticism.

To escape our inner critic we develop what Tara calls ‘false strategies’ to numb our pain and then we hate ourselves more for our strategies.

The Path to Freedom

“Whatever we can’t embrace with love imprisons us”
Tara Brach

The path to freedom opens up for us when we awaken to our suffering. When we see clearly our vulnerability, our self aversion and our pain. When we catch our minds in the act of self harm. When we become aware of those times when we turn upon ourselves.

Tara talks about the ‘Alchemy of Self Compassion’ and I understand it as follows.

Recognising our self-judgment and self-criticism and bringing into awareness the underlying, false and limiting beliefs they are built upon. This enables us to reach out and touch our vulnerability, we feel the ‘ouch’ when we touch our pain.

Once we get past all the road blocks and denials and truly connect with our ‘trance of unworthiness’ we can begin the process of healing by deepening our wing of self compassion. This can be a real gesture by holding our hand on our heart or wherever we feel the pain, and offering compassion to ourselves in words that we can accept. It may be as simple as, “It’s OK, I’m here now.”

In this way we can truly become the presence in our lives that “holds experience with kindness”. We are in touch with the missing ingredient of self compassion.

The Challenge of Self Compassion

Why We Should Be Spiritual

“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.” 
Rumer Godden

I’ve just returned from Valencia in Spain where I was staying in the ‘barrio’ of Rusaffa. It is an old working class neighbourhood that has become gentrified in recent years and is now filled with trendy bars and restaurants, in the evenings it comes alive to the vibrancy of the outdoor Mediterranean lifestyle of food, drink, and conversation.

At the heart of Rusaffa is a busy indoor market, a small square of cafe’s and bars, and the Catholic church with its landmark spire. From early in the morning until late in the evening the square is a bustle of activity; market traders, students, families, locals and tourists.

Shortly before 11 every morning the imposing doors of the church are opened and in the bright sunlight of the day the dark interior of the church is opened to the world. Students gather on the steps before their classes, friends meet, mothers sit with their children, but with the exception of a few elderly people nobody goes inside.

On the hour the church bells peal and conversation stops while each hour is rung with a loud chime. Yet despite the noise of the bells, the landmark spire, and the open doors, nobody ‘hears’ or ‘sees’ the church. It stands ‘hidden’ in full view, so familiar it has become invisible.

Out of curiousity I stepped inside the church and found an atmosphere of dignity and reverence. It is a large space with a soft light revealing an ornately decorated interior. It felt like a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the day. A place of stillness, patience and reflection. Somewhere to centre yourself and restore a sense of balance before stepping back into the helter-skelter of the day.

Our Forgotten Spiritual Room

This imposing, but unseen church at the centre of a bustling community spoke to me as a metaphor for the unvisited spiritual room within our own lives. For most of us it is unnoticed and ignored. But, if we opened the door and aired the room we would find a place of stillness, a sanctuary for a brief respite from the demands of our busy lives. A place of reflection to derive some purpose and meaning as the days, weeks, and months slip by.

So why has our spiritual room become forgotten? What prevents us from opening the door and spending a little time there? I can only speak from my own experience but the absence of a spiritual dimension in my life stems from a disillusionment and separation from the religion of my childhood, and an inability to untangle the spiritual from the religious.

It is this inability to understand that we can be spiritual without being religious that has separated many of us from our spiritual side. And for many of us that has left a gaping hole in our lives.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality is not religion. It is a path for us to generate happiness, understanding and love, so we can live deeply each moment of our life…….(It is) discovering ways to handle life’s difficulties and generate peace joy and happiness right where we are, on this beautiful planet.
Thich Nhat Hahn

To be spiritual is not defined by membership of any church or religion. To be spiritual has many dimensions but at its core is a recognition of what it means to be human in a Universe in which we only pay a short visit. If religions provide the answers, then spirituality asks the questions, and we don’t always need answers to value the importance of the question.

Whether we are religious, atheist, or simply uncertain, we all need a spiritual dimension in our lives.

Why is Spirituality Important?

At the heart of the human condition is our ownership of our thoughts and feelings as our reality. We experience a spectrum of emotions from happiness, compassion, and peacefulness, to sadness, resentment, and restlessness. It can be emotionally draining.

One of the hardest parts of being human is our relationships with other humans, at home, at work, and socially. When a relationship isn’t working for us it’s like carrying an injury, it nags at us persistently.

To be human is to carry baggage around with us. It may be slights and traumas, or dissatisfaction with our own bad habits and behaviour. Despite a strong conviction that we can shake them off, they just seem to stick regardless.

To pay a visit to our spiritual room allows us to observe our thoughts and emotions and recognise them as our reality but not necessarily our truth. It is an opportunity to bathe for a short while in the waters of serenity and acceptance. A short time to centre and refocus before we return to the fray.

Once we understand that spirituality is not religion, but a basic human need, we can give ourselves permission to connect with an inner nutritional energy that is available to us at any time and in any place.

Visiting Our Spiritual Room

The best way to regularly visit your spiritual room is to create a ritual. A time in the day when you can sit alone in stillness. Is there a place in your home where you can create a small sanctuary? Is there a time in the day when you will not be disturbed? Have you the motivation to connect with an inner nurturing spiritual energy?

The biggest barrier to a spiritual practice is our own scepticism, impatience, and tiredness. We cannot always be still when we sit in stillness. The most important thing to remember is to accept our thoughts and feelings as they are, without judgment.

In the spiritual room we turn off our inner critic and become a silent watcher of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings. It is through observation, patience and gentle concentration that we calm our mind, find peace, and gain valuable insights about who we really are.

It is a life long practice that is deeply nurturing for our spirit.

Why We Should Be Spiritual

Mindfulness – A Better Way of Thinking

We live in an incredible age. We can expect to live longer and healthier lives than was  ever possible for any of our ancestors and technology is accelerating at an ever increasing rate. However, the speed of change means a significant disconnect has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live.

To make matters worse we have a default way of thinking that is ill equipped to bridge this gap and as a consequence we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed despite living in a world of plenty. There is another way of thinking that can bridge this gap and which can help us make sense of the disappointment we often feel for no apparent reason.

This way of thinking is called mindfulness, and this article aims to look at it in a different light so we can gain a deeper understanding of what it is and how it can open up a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.

The disconnect between us and evolution.

Within living memory households had neither electricity nor running water. We now have every possible household  convenience to liberate us from the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning. In two generations entertainment has gone from radio, records and cinema to an on-demand streaming output of digital content that includes, television, music, and film and has added games, apps, and social media to help us fill every moment of our day. We live in the age of the consumer and technology has put a sophisticated smartphone in everyone’s back pocket.

However modern life has other challenges, paradoxically we live in a world in which more people die by their own hand than through war, terrorism and murder. We have never before lived in a world in which we are connected 24/7 by our smartphones to everyone and everything. We are bombarded by information, advertising, emails, messages and notifications all clamoring for our attention.

Our world has also changed dramatically, we are now largely an urban society, families are often fragmented and the emergence of social media and instant messaging changes our relationships and the way we interact. The constant demands on our attention undermine our ability to focus, we lose sight of what is important and we can easily be led into a world of distraction that is shallow, unfulfilling and addictive.

Stress now affects one in every five of us to an extent that it negatively impacts our mental health. It can manifest as anxiety or depression, two different conditions both corrosive to our happiness, health and well-being.

This is not a world that evolution prepared us for, our ancestors had to compete for scarce resources with limited information in close knit communities. Human brains  evolved over millions of years and developed potent cocktails of chemical endorphins as a stimulus and reward to keep us focused on satisfying our basic human needs.

But in our modern world of plenty, a world in which most of our evolutionary needs are met, we still seek the pleasure of the reward in the absence of the need. We have replaced ‘needs’ with ‘wants’, but pleasure dissipates quickly and once one want is satisfied another soon appears to take its place. The constant demands on our attention, the continual carrots that are dangled in front of us, distract us from what is important and what gives life meaning. And without meaning, purpose and direction we can find ourselves lost, bewildered and at times deeply unhappy.

If our greatest aspiration in life is to be content and happy, then it is imperative we understand how to bridge the gap that has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the actual world in which we live. To do this we must first resolve two significant problems.

  • We don’t fully understand how our minds work
  • We have a default way of thinking that doesn’t serve us well.
Why we don’t understand our minds.

Isn’t it incredible that we spend 16 years in full-time education without ever learning how our minds work? Why is this?

We don’t learn how our minds work because our society and education have never placed any importance on doing so. It simply hasn’t occurred to us that our minds might not be the free thinking entities they appear to be.

We believe that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking. They are the centre of our Universe, the starting point from which we look out at the world. We don’t fully understand how mind and body are connected, but our religious and cultural beliefs have instilled a belief that mind and body are somehow separate.

This belief does not allow for the possibility of hidden biases in our thinking, nor does it teach us to be vigilant of the strong evolutionary needs and instincts that drive our thinking and behaviour at a subconscious level. It engenders a one directional way of thinking, one that thinks without ever questioning our thoughts.

Our default way of thinking

It is counter intuitive to imagine that the earth revolves around the sun, every morning we see the sun rise and fall as it moves across the sky. It is only when the rotation of the Earth is explained to us that we understand that the perception of the sun moving around the earth is an illusion.

In many regards the belief that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking is also an illusion.

We look out from our minds in the same way as we look out from the Earth, as if we are at the centre of our own private Universe. But what if our minds are no more than an illusion created by billions of chemical and electrical interactions between cells within our bodies. What is the consequence of our thoughts originating from cells which form an unbroken chain linking back hundreds of generations? What if the perception of our logical, rational, free thinking mind is also an illusion?

When we consider the full implications of a mind and body that acts as one, we create the opportunity for a whole new way of thinking. It no longer serves us just to think in one direction, we also need to be curious as to where our thoughts come from and what purpose they serve.

We can now think in two directions, outwardly at our thought, but also inwardly back at where the thought comes from.

Let us consider these two different concepts in more detail;

  • Mind and Body are Separate
  • Mind and Body are One.
Mind and Body are Separate

Dualism is the belief that mind and body are separate, and for most of us it is our default way of thinking. So where did this come from?

Many of us believe that we have a divine soul that is separate from the body and which will receive its reward in Heaven. But there would be little point of our soul getting to Heaven if it arrived there and didn’t know who it was! We have invested our mind with the same sense of separate identity that is the defining feature of our soul.

The philosopher Rene Descartes supported the belief of a separate soul when he proposed his concept of Cartesian Dualism. This considers the mind, or soul, as an ethereal substance, distinct and separate from the body but which interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence our otherwise rational mind, such as when our emotions take over.

The concept of a separate mind and body is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we fail to see how deeply it influences our thinking.

It tends to reinforce a belief that we are uniquely different from the rest of the animal kingdom. We watch with fascination the bizarre behaviour of animals and not for one moment do we consider that our own thoughts and behaviour may be equally bizarre driven by similar evolutionary instincts.

We consider ourselves to be logical, free thinking and with the exception of matters of the heart, to make rational decisions based on our information to hand. This belief is so strong that most of us take it as a self evident truth, one that is so obvious that we don’t need to question it. We implicitly trust our reasoning and the experience upon which it is based.

The deep flaw with this one-directional way of thinking is that we never really question why we think or feel the way we do. We do not allow for the fact that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by evolutionary needs and instincts buried deep within our psyche.

As a consequence we never benefit from the deep liberation of knowing that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We appreciate that hunger and physical pain are signals from our bodies, but somehow cravings and moods become much more personal. We identify with our emotions, “I am happy”, or “I am sad”.

But what if thoughts and emotions are just ‘stuff’ that happens to us. Wouldn’t stress, cravings and difficult emotions be much easier to deal with if we thought of them in the same way as we think of physical pain, as something that happens to us. Not something that is us.

Mind and Body are One

One of the most amazing recent discoveries in science is that life started just once on Earth when a single cell pulsed into being. Two billion years later and every living thing on the planet; bacteria, plants and animals all share a single common ancestor.

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
On the Origin of Species (1859) – Charles Darwin

There are now several fields of science engaged in gaining a greater understanding of our minds. Psychology is the science of behavior and mind and cognitive neuroscience investigates how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry within the brain and body.

Materialism is the philosophical and scientific concept that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that our mind and consciousness are part and processes of our body. To put it more succinctly, mind and body are one.

The concept that mind and body are one allows for the possibility that our subconscious mind may be constantly scanning for threats and seeking to satisfy needs. Suddenly understanding our mind takes on a whole new imperative, what other forces or motives are underlying our thoughts and decisions? What hidden biases in our thinking do we need to consider and make allowance for? Are we constantly being driven to satisfy ancient evolutionary needs that are out of sync with our modern day circumstances?

Two directional thinking allows us to insert a curious observer into our thinking process. Not only does this allow us to question why and where our thought comes from, but it also allows us to make more considered decisions based on all our options.

A Better Way of Thinking

Allowing ourselves to consider mind and body as one opens up a real opportunity to bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live. An opportunity that can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.

We can learn to understand our minds are not as free thinking and rational as we believe. That there are hidden biases in our thinking processes, and that we have inherited ‘ancient fires’ from our ancestors that drive our thoughts and behaviour.

Considering our mind and body as one is not mutually exclusive of a fundamental belief in a divine soul, it just re-frames our thinking in a context that allows a healthier understanding of our mind and how it works. A mind and body that are united can still be the seat of a divine soul.

The most significant consequence of considering mind and body as one is the importance of nurturing all aspects of our well-being. If our thoughts and moods originate in our bodies, then we can fully appreciate the connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind. We can fully understand the importance of taking care of all aspects of our health; physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.

Happiness and contentment are states of mind, and our first priority must be to find a way to develop resilience and positive emotions. We also need to find a healthy way to deal with stress and negative emotions.

The answer is a two directional way of thinking, a way of thinking that we otherwise know as mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be thought of as many things; a multi-faceted diamond, a key to open many doors, a state of being, a path, an energy, a strategy, and a tool.

In essence mindfulness is bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment, at it’s very core is the energy of a relaxed, but focused attention.

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Jon Kabat Zinn

The state of awareness that we cultivate is detached, curious and compassionate, it is as if we have invited a trusted, wise and kind observer into our minds to watch what is happening.

This two directional thinking can replace our default way of thinking that never seeks to understand why we think the way we do. We now have a thinking tool that not only looks at our thoughts and emotions but also looks back to see where they came from.

This practice of alert awareness brings insights, and it is through these insights that we can make life changing choices about what is important to us, and where we want to invest our limited time and precious attention.

The practice of mindfulness if developed over time can be deeply transformative, we operate on auto-pilot most of the time and our reactions are purely instinctual based on a life time of acquired programming, beliefs and habits.

What mindfulness does is to take us off auto pilot and allow us to recognise that at any time, in any situation, we always have choices on how to act. We learn that not only can we choose our words and actions, but with practice we can also choose our thoughts and emotions, this is deeply liberating.

Putting it all together

Our world has changed so dramatically in the last few generations that a disconnect has opened up between the world that evolution prepared us, and the world in which we live.

This disconnect is challenging our happiness and mental health to such a degree that in a world of plenty we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed without knowing why.

Our difficulties are compounded because we have a default way of thinking that assumes our thinking is always logical, rational and without influence or bias. We cannot see that on many occasions the tail is wagging the dog, that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by hidden evolutionary needs and instincts. Our thinking is one directional only, we think but without ever questioning our thoughts.

If we allow for the fact that our minds are part and parcel of our bodies, and that they contain millions of years of evolutionary baggage, then we can change our perspective and the way we think.

If we introduce the practice of mindfulness we can insert a curious, kind observer to watch our thoughts. This two directional style of thinking not only follows our thoughts, but also looks back to understand where they came from.

The insights we gain from a better understanding of our mind, thoughts and behaviour allow us to make better choices. Choices which can bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world we actually live in.

Ultimately, it is through a greater understand of ourselves that we find peace and happiness and open a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.

Mindfulness – A Better Way of Thinking

A Sprinkling of Self Compassion

Mindfulness tends to focus on the transitory nature of thoughts, but the real heavy lifting in mindfulness is when we start to tackle our emotions and deal with stress. If we think of stress as an umbrella then we will find anxiety and depression sheltering beneath it.

For the real challenges in life mindfulness can take us so far but at some point we need to reach out for help. However, as a practice mindfulness is wonderful in helping us to care for ourselves through self compassion and mindfulness practices like RAIN.

Emotions

While thoughts may come and go, emotions feel more like states of being. We identify with them to such an extent that we think of ourselves as them, “I am happy” or “I am sad.”

Robert Plutchik gave us a wonderful way to visualize emotions, with his ‘Wheel of Emotions.’

2000px-Plutchik-wheel.svg

Plutchik considered there to be eight primary emotions; anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. The three main features of this model are:

  • Each primary emotion has a polar opposite, joy with sadness, anger with fear.
  • Each primary emotion has a scale of emotional intensity, joy ranges from serenity to ecstasy and anger from annoyance to rage.
  • Primary emotions blend to form secondary emotions, together anger and distrust create contempt, while joy and trust create love.

Our experience of others suggests that we all have a trademark emotion, some people seem to have a naturally happy disposition while others are more grumpy. We also seem to feel emotions at different intensities, the same trigger may barely ‘raise an eyebrow’ in one person while another may ‘spit the dummy’.

One thing is for certain we are very attached to our emotional states when we feel good we feel wonderful, but when we feel bad we are convinced that our whole life is miserable, at these times it’s very difficult to remember, “this too will pass.”

Stress

Thoughts and emotions mixed together can blend powerful cocktails such as anxiety and depression. While these are very different states they are the opposite sides of the coin we call stress.

A little stress can be good for us if it motivates us to get things done and indeed some people have the ability to thrive on it, rather like the organisms which flourish in highly toxic deep sea vents! However, stress becomes a problem for us when we begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, and this is often the trigger for anxiety or depression.

Anxiety

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
– Mark Twain

While Mark Twain’s quote is witty and has a ring of truth, there is nothing amusing about anxiety. Anxiety is characterised by a state of inner turmoil which can vary from unease to a constant loop of deeply debilitating worry. There is an important distinction between anxiety and fear, fear is an emotional reaction to something that is happening now, while anxiety is worrying about the future.

Depression

“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
 – J.K. Rowling

Depression is typified by a loss of interest and motivation. It can feel like an overwhelming sadness or as if the very life has been sucked out of you. The Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are metaphors for depression and are based on her own experience of depression.

 

The felt experience of Life

Our experience of life is felt as a subtly changing landscape of emotional states. How important then to be aware of the basic palette of emotions from which our emotional landscape is painted.

It is estimated that one in five of us suffer from emotional stress at a level that is causing anxiety or depression. That’s a lot of people and although we live in a connected world it’s predominantly a world of ‘image’ which discourages people from sharing their suffering with others. As a consequence we suffer in silence, not only is this isolating but it reinforces the sense that something is wrong with us, that we are somehow different from everybody else.

If only we knew that the human condition is to suffer and if only we could see the amount of hidden suffering in the world. At our core we are social animals and stress is toxic, especially when it’s hidden and internalised.

It is my own experience that mindfulness can only take us so far, that there are times and challenges when we need to reach out for help. This may be a trusted friend who can advice or simply listen, or it may be the professional advise of a trained and compassionate counselor.

Self Compassion and Self Care

One of the strongest practices in mindfulness is practicing self-compassion, this is deeply nurturing and healing and a leading exponent is Kirstin Neff, her 20 minute TED talk is a great place to start.

Another wonderful practice when we catch ourselves in the company of difficult thoughts and emotions is the RAIN practice and is explained in much more detail in this post from Tara’s website , however the RAIN acronym stands for:

  • Recognise what is happening
  • Allow it to be just as it is
  • Investigate with a kind curiousity
  • Non-identify. These thoughts and feelings are not who you are, they do not define you.

This is just a toe in the water when it comes to learning about our emotions, stress and the states of anxiety and depression. However, as our experience of life is felt how important it is to learn how to cultivate our good emotions and disassociate ourselves from the bad. This is something that mindfulness can help us with.

A Sprinkling of Self Compassion

A Place of Patience

When I run after what I think I want,
my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;
if I sit in my own place of patience,
what I need flows to me, and without pain.
From this I understand that
what I want also wants me,
is looking for me and attracting me.
There is a great secret here
for anyone who can grasp it.

Rumi

Over the last few weeks this poem has had a profound influence on me. Even though it was written over 800 years ago it speaks to me with a clarity, urgency and vitality as if the ink was still dry on the page.

It perfectly describes our two modes of existence, we are either running after what we think we want and suffering for our efforts, or we can choose to sit in our own place of patience and allow what we need to flow to us, without suffering.

Our own place of patience is mindfulness.

If mindfulness is a skill then meditation is how we learn the skill. It’s best to make meditation a regular daily habit, and the easiest way to form a habit is to make it something you enjoy.

The Setting

Find a quiet and comfortable space to create a setting for your meditation, similarly find a quiet time in your day when you will not be disturbed to build your meditation habit.

“Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it every day, and at last we cannot break it.”
Horace Mann

A meditation cushion, a zafu, is ideal for meditating. It allows you to sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back straight. In the absence of a zafu use a couple of cushions to give you some height off the floor which makes it easier to sit cross-legged. A chair is perfectly OK, however you need to sit with your back erect and not resting against the back of the chair, this is easier said than done as it’s easy to lean back in the chair to take a rest, or ease discomfort.

It helps to have an object to focus your attention on while meditating, so a small statue or a picture is ideal. I also like to light a candle and burn a small incense stick, this creates a sense of ritual and adds a spiritual element to my practice, it’s also very cosy!

I can honestly say that my morning ritual brings a wonderful sense of peace to start my day.

Insight Timer

I use an application called Insight Timer on my mobile phone to start and end my meditation sessions, I’ve found this to be a great help in building my meditation habit. Insight Timer allows me to time my meditation sessions and to start and finish them with the wonderful sound of a meditation bell.

I can add intermediate bells during my meditation session to bring me back to awareness and this also gives me a sense of how much time has elapsed. All my meditation sessions are recorded and I get a gold star every time I complete ten consecutive days, and I love gold stars!

There are hundreds of guided meditations available on Insight Timer with many eminent spiritual teachers. There are also many interest groups you can join, and you can even make ‘meditation’ friends.

The Practice

Meditation is sitting with alertness, for something that seems so simple its actually incredibly hard. It is only when we start meditating that we become aware of our ‘monkey mind’, the tendency of our mind to go swinging off by itself chasing after random thoughts.

In my blog on The Watcher I spoke about four elements of mindfulness; arrival, presence, focus and insight. Every time our mind wanders we have to keep bringing it back to ‘arrive’ in the present moment. This calls for great patience and Rumi’s description of mindfulness as ‘our own place of patience’ is a wonderful description of what we are trying to achieve.

For me, I know I am in a state of mindfulness when the Watcher is present. This is when I comeoff automatic pilot and I am able to look at my thoughts and emotions with a detached and self compassionate curiousity.

Be as awake as a person walking on high stilts, any misstep could cause the walker to fall. Be like a medieval knight walking weaponless in a forest of swords. Be like a lion, going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Gateless Gate

In mindfulness the constant chatter of our thoughts and emotions can be imagined as a gate blocking us from our state of natural awareness. When we calm the mind we can pass through the gateless gate and arrive in presence.

The simplest way to calm the mind is to take three long breaths, inhaling and exhaling and allowing the mind to settle so you can arrive in the present moment. It can also help to focus your attention on an object of meditation; a picture, a statue, the flame of a candle, or just a spot on the floor about a yard in front of you.

When your mind is calm there are many exercises you can do to develop your ability to focus. One exercise is to count each breath until you get to ten, and then start again at one. Every time your mind wanders start again at one. You will be surprised at how difficult it is, and at the number of times you find yourself at 16 or 17 blissfully unaware that your mind is miles away.

 

Experiencing the Present Moment

A Universal practice in mindfulness is to examine with self compassion and curiousity our experience of the present moment.

To do this ask yourself four questions:

  • What am I doing now?
  • What emotions am I feeling now?
  • What am I thinking now?
  • What are my senses experiencing now?

This is a mindfulness practice that you can use at any time of the day, not just when you are meditating, which is why the first question is to ask yourself what you are doing right now? Where are your going? What are your actions or behaviour?

Emotions are what provide the colour to our day and we are strongly attached to them. Mindfulness is so important in allowing ourselves to remember that we are not our thoughts and emotions, they are just things that happen to us, things we experience during our day.

Behind every emotion is a thought, sometimes it is buried so deep its not always possible to spot it. We can think of an emotion as the shadow of a thought, if we can see the shadow we may be able to spot the thought that casts it.

It’s a wonderful exercise when you are meditating to run through your senses; what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Spend a few precious moments with every sense perception, it can add a richness and vitality to your experience of Now.

Your own place of patience

Taking time to meditate every day is the most positive action you can take to build your own place of patience and bring more peace and joy into your life.

What do you enjoy most in your meditation habit?

 

A Place of Patience

Hooks

Hooks

I sit and cast out my hooks,
And each time I slowly reel them in.
Again and again I throw them out,
Hooks of need, desire and longing.

Until eventually a hook catches.
I pull gently and sometimes it falls free.
But at some point a hook holds fast,
And then….. my hook pulls me.

The above is a simple poem that I wrote to express an important insight I gained through observing my own behaviour. The things we become attached to, the objects of our addictive behaviour, are simply the objects that get caught in our hooks. If it wasn’t them it would be something else.

It isn’t our bad habits and addictions that require our attention, instead we need to understand what drives us to keep endlessly fishing. Deep down in our subconscious is a need that was never met and most likely will never be satisfied.

Though I’m quite pleased by my modest effort, I think Rumi expressed it better when he said:-

When I run after what I think I want,
My days are a furnace of distress and anxiety.

If I sit in my own place of patience,
What I need flows to me, and without any pain.

From this I understand that what I want also wants me,
is looking for me and attracting me.

There is a great secret in this for anyone who can grasp it.

Rumi

Hooks

The Weather Systems of the Mind

When we learn to sail it helps to learn a little about the weather, when we practice mindfulness it helps to know a little about the internal weather systems of our mind. Here are the essentials to help you sail with the elements and not do battle against them.

Nature

We are a link in an unbroken chain that extends back to the earliest humans and far beyond that to the very beginning of life on Earth. It has taken millions of years for our brain to evolve and it has done so in stages. Rick Hanson identifies three key stages of development; the reptilian, the mammalian, and the primate.

Associated with each of these three stages are basic needs; the need for safety, the need to be satisfied, and the need for connection with others. Strong negative emotions are instinctively triggered if we are deprived of any of our basic needs, sometimes we can see and feel the vivid colours of these emotions without understanding where they come from.

Nurture

We believe what we see.

One of life’s greatest challenges is that others just don’t seem to be able to see things as clearly as we do. It’s a mystery!

In reality we all see life through invisible ‘judgment glasses’, we just don’t know they’re there. Judgment glasses are great because they allow us to make decisions, hold opinions, and generally they give us certainty in life. Some people have the ‘black and white’ variety, while others have the ‘shades of grey’.

There are so many factors that go into manufacturing our own judgment glasses; parents, peers, education, environment, society, media, culture, to name just a few. While we can’t remove our glasses, we can remind ourselves to take a more searching look.

Emotions

When we look through our judgment glasses a thought bursts into a rainbow of emotional colours. There are the strong reds and violets of anger and fear and also soft pastel blues and greens of joy and calm.

Whatever we look at provides a kaleidoscope of emotional colours. It might be something someone said yesterday or twenty years ago, or it may be thoughts about meeting someone later today. Whatever it is it has a colour.

Sometimes the brightest colours we see are when we look at our own actions and behaviour, our expectations and achievements. These are strong colours and we don’t always like what we see.

We forget they are only colours.

The Negativity Bias

A strong evolutionary trait is to remember the bad and forget the good. Rick Hanson expresses it wonderfully when he likens bad experiences to Velcro and good to Teflon. The bad sticks and the good slides off effortlessly.

The negativity bias has done a wonderful job in keeping our ancestors alive, and by extension assuring our own existence. However, it does mean that our judgment glasses have a tendency to be always scanning for threats and to give preference to the bad over the good. Negative emotions don’t fade so quickly and tend to played back, again and again.

Problem Children

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to live a life without experiencing some form of trauma. Many things happen to us in childhood which we can’t remember let alone understand. We remain vulnerable as adolescents, young adults, and throughout our lives to trauma; bullying, rejection, loss, failure. It’s a long list.

When we experience trauma it can leave a trapped emotional state that always remains with us, surfacing unexpectedly throughout our lives. This is not easy to deal with, particularly when we don’t know what it is and where it comes from.

Our instinct is to escape from these unpleasant emotions, and that can lead us down the road of distraction, bad habits and addictions.

Sitting among the breakers

Anyone who has sat and watched their thoughts for more than a few minutes is aware that they come and go like waves on a beach. They form out to sea and as they enter our consciousness they crest and break over us, then dissipate and wash away. They follow endlessly, one after another.

Every now and then a thought comes along that is so powerful that it picks us up and carries us away with it. These are the times when we are lost at sea, when are in the grip of a thought and emotion so powerful that it triggers an instinctive or habitual reaction that we might regret later.

Why we suffer

As we sit on the beach among the breakers, we paint every thought, ever wave, with an emotional colour. There are some waves we would like to stay and others we would like to avoid.

2,500 years ago a clever man in India had the wonderful insight that all human suffering comes from this wish to attract the thoughts we like, and to avoid the ones we don’t. We spend so much time either running after the things we want, or running away from the things we don’t. It’s endless, tiring, and extremely frustrating and as a consequence we spend a lot of time suffering.

Understanding our mind

Here again are the essentials on the weather systems of our mind.

  • every day we are driven to satisfy basic human needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection.
  • every thought we have is interpreted and judged by a lifetime of experience.
  • every judgment is felt in our mind and body as an emotion.
  • negative thoughts stick and replay again and again.
  • our mind and body never forget a trauma.
  • thoughts come and go like waves breaking endlessly on a beach.
  • we are constantly running to or from our thoughts.
  • we suffer from our constant running.

Knowing a little about our mind can help us sail with the elements, and enjoy a more peaceful passage than being battered by tide, wind and swell.

The Weather Systems of the Mind

The Watcher

Blaise Pascal lived in 17th Century Paris and famously said…

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Perhaps if he was alive today he would have added…

“without looking at his smartphone.”

In fact, Pascal’s seventeenth century room would also have been missing; a computer, television, radio, stereo, newspaper and some magazines. Though perhaps there was a book lying temptingly open on the coffee table.

In our 24 hour connected world, how on earth can we ever develop the ability to sit quietly in a room alone?

Fortunately, there is an answer to this dilemma… The Art of Mindfulness.

There is a common misconception about mindfulness, too often it is associated with the image of a meditator sitting on a beach caught in the golden rays of a beautiful sunset. Such imagery conjures up images of guaranteed serenity, happiness and contentment.

In reality mindfulness is just as much about being with our negative emotions as it is about being with our positive emotions.

Mindfulness

There are four key attributes to mindfulness; arrival, presence, focus and insight.

Imagine a classroom in a primary school full of noisy, excited children. The teacher is absent and the noise level has reached a crescendo. A kind and curious teacher enters the classroom and after a few ‘shushes’ even the loudest voices are silenced.

Arrival

In this analogy the classroom is our mind and the children are the many thoughts and emotions that constantly clamor for our attention. The arrival of the teacher is when we quieten our minds and return to the present moment. Our breath is constantly available to us and after three long in-breaths we can begin to still the mental chatter in our noisy minds.

Presence

Mindfulness is our underlying natural awareness, its what happens when we take our mind off auto-pilot and direct our attention to what’s going on around us and within us.

I like the analogy of a kind and curious teacher because mindfulness is the ability to watch our thoughts and feelings as if they are separate from us. Instead of defining ourselves by them, we encourage a compassionate and curious presence to observe what’s going on inside our heads. This presence is the arrival of the Watcher, our very own kind and curious teacher.

Focus

Mindfulness requires us to focus and stay alert. Again and again we will find our mind drifting away, clinging to a particular thought. Mindfulness requires us to constantly guide our mind back to awareness. It can be exasperating, but every time it happens just remember to smile at the unruly nature of your mind. Its no different from the patience required with a classroom of over active children.

Sometimes mindfulness is like being stuck in a revolving door, we have to keep constantly arriving back into presence.

In the same what that a kind and curious teacher will keep an eye on the troublesome children in a classroom to try to understand their disruptive behaviour. So we use mindfulness to focus on our own negative patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour, to try to understand their cause and meaning.

Insight

Insight is the fruit of mindfulness, it’s the ‘aha’ moments when remaining present, curious and focused leads to a greater understanding of who we are. It’s these moments that have the potential to make real and lasting change possible and permit healing to take place.

How long can you keep the class quiet?

In our age of distraction mindfulness allows us to develop the ability to still and observe our minds, it’s a deeply nourishing practice for mind, body and soul. It provides a sanctuary in which we can enjoy the times we feel good and take care of ourselves when we feel bad.

As we get to know our very own kind and curious Watcher we will learn much about ourselves, we may even gain life changing insights that will allow a little more serenity, happiness and contentment into our lives.

Mindfulness is a practice, and the real challenge is to make it a way of life that we bring into all the precious moments of our day. But as any teacher will tell you, there is only so long that you can keep a classroom of children quiet.

How do you define mindfulness? What would you add?

 

The Watcher

Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification

PublicEnemy

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist at Gallup may not have set the Internet alight in his TED Talk on Well-Being, but 13mins and 29 seconds into his 15 minute talk I had an ‘Aha’ moment.

Jim’s book, ‘Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements‘ recommends we take a ‘Holistic’ approach to our Well-Being by nurturing five dimensions of our life.

  • Career – Enjoy what we do.
  • Social – Connect with friends & family
  • Financial – Earn enough
  • Physical – Keep active
  • Community – Engage in our community

It was when Jim identified the Well-Being ‘blockers’ that I had my ‘Aha’ moment.

‘Immediate Gratification’…..gets in the way…… Boy, doesn’t it just!!

WhatGetsintheWay

To the best of my ability I try to plan and watch my days. And almost every day I get tripped up by that old chestnut, ‘Immediate Gratification’. If I am tired, hungry or feeling down it’s pretty much a dead cert I’m going to fall.

We all know what’s good for us, and we all devote our good intentions to gazing at the golden rainbow on the far horizon. Instead we should be looking for the snags & snares that lie hidden in our next step.

Before we start nurturing the Five Essential Elements, we should find a ‘methadone’ replacement for our own personal ‘Immediate Gratification’ hit. After all, the pursuit of pleasure is hard wired into the human condition, its neural pathways are the super highways of our brain.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Jim wasn’t the first person here.

Life in this mundane world with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things is unsatisfactory and painful.

Buddha, The First Noble Truth – 500 BCE

While Jim calls it a ‘blocker’, I believe it’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, it’s the barrier we need to climb over to get to the other side.

Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification