Dukkhaboy

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Mindfulness and meditation books – a starter

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If you have read any of the mindfulness based posts on this site you will have realised that all of my good ideas are stolen straight from someone far more qualified than I am. Therefore I wanted to share a brief list of books I have found helpful with my practice and understanding of these two subjects. They are in no particular order.

Silence – Thich Nhat Hanh I only finished this at the end of last year. It is wonderful. Tchich Nhat Nanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who established one of the best known Buddhist and mindfulness centres in Europe; Plum Village in France. This book illustrates the delights and joy to be found in mindfulness practice and how pausing internally or quietening the mind can improve the quality of your life and of the lives of the people with whom you come into contact. Tchich Nhat Hanh has the advantage of being an mindfulness and meditation expert with a strong understanding of Western ways of living and thinking. Which is like Pema Chodron below, only the other way around. (ISBN 9781846044342 )

How to Meditate – Pema Chodron Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun, who follows the Tibetan tradition. But there is no need to be a Buddhist to read this. It is a  step by step guide, but also one you can take at your own pace, pausing between each stage to develop your experience with the theories and practices. Pema Chodron explains very clearly how the problems in your mindfulness practice are in fact necessary to help you  better understand your mind. The book looks at mindfulness both on its own and through the lens of a highly realised practitioner. It is a work I have read and re-read as my practice has changed. An excellent book written by a westerner with a strong understanding of Asian philosophy. (ISBN 9781604079333 )

Finding Peace in a Frantic World – Mark William and Daniel Penman This is the book to MBCT that Jon Kabat – Zinn’s is to MBSR. The book contains a CD with medtitation instructions you can follow and there is a website based on the book too www.franticworld.com The impacts of mindfulness as well as how to practice it are clearly explained. Most of all the authors show how the answer to living in a frantic world is to realise how we can stop “getting in our own way” and live with more freedom as a result. Reading this gives you a lot if confidence in what you are doing, but like an MBSR or MBCT course, this book is best read and used if you are prepared to commit yourself to reading it all and following it through to the end. (ISBN 9780749953089 )

The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron I have to admit that this is my favourite book on this list which is why there are two books by Pema Chodron here. So much compassion and wisdom come with this writing that it is difficult not to feel warmed by almost every page. I found this stop-right-there fantastic on first reading and whenever I have looked to help from it since. I have used the ideas of “precision, gentleness and letting go in my own practice and in my mindfulness teaching ever since. this really is a fantastic book. (ISBN 9781590307939 )

Stages of Meditation – The Dalai Lama – the “most Buddhist” book on this list. And an excellent one on meditation, not just mindfulness. It is a commentary based on a 8th century text. But don’t let that make you think it is all theory and no practicality. This is still written the best known ‘ordinary monk’ on the planet and as a result brings this ancient thinking and belief into a structure and a language we can all comprehend. This is a book you could refer to all your life. (ISBN 9780712629638 )

Frazzled – Ruby Wax – Ruby Wax writes relevantly yet informatively on how it is to be full of anxiety and in fact on how we all feel the same such things to differing degrees. She doesn’t duck from from explaining the science behind mindfulness and how it helped her come to terms with the chaotic nature or her mind. This is a worthy book on the topic if for no other reason that it demonstrates that the all those worries you have aren’t just merely worries that will pass but also that everyone else suffers from the same problems. (ISBN 9780062398796 )

Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat Zinn The book that started off the modern understanding of and interest in secular mindfulness; in many ways there hasn’t been another book to beat it on MBSR yet. The size of the book might put you off and make you want to use it as merely a reference guide rather than text book. But as so much of what is written on mindfulness from a secular and western perspective can be traced directly back to this book it will always be high on people’s lists in necessary reads. Personally I have found the chapter on the 7 foundations of mindfulness and why “we don’t have to like mindfulness, we have to just get on and do it” a real source of support on more than one occasion. (ISBN 9780385298971 )

What is Meditation? – Rob Nairn This is the first meditation book I ever read. I had met Rob a couple of times beforehand and so knew that the calmness and wisdom promised by such a practice was an established part of his day to day life. You could choose to read this as a guide to mindfulness or as an introduction to Buddhism without touching the other half as the book, but since Rob so beautifully explains how an understanding of one compliments the other you would be missing out. But whatever you choose you will find this a delight and in my experience also a fantastic start in discovering what meditation and Buddhism mean and what they can do for you. (ISBN 9780834829350 )

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Blind, not blind

eilidh-johnstone-blind-skier

Eilidh Johnstone is 10. She is blind. She skis. I am 51. I wear glasses. I moan about them when it rains and they get wet. Having read about her and watched her in action I feel my negative outlook needs adjusting.

There is an old old story about a gatekeeper. A traveller arrived at the the city and before passing through asked the keeper “What are the people of this city like?” The gatekeeper ducked his question and asked the traveller, “What were the people like where you just came from?” “Oh dear God, they were awful: untrustworthy, prone to to criminality, self centred and dishonest.” “Well I think you will find the people here are just the same,” ended the gatekeeper as he allowed the traveller through.

Later that day another traveller new to the city, approached the gates and before passing through he asked the keeper the same thing “What are the people of this city like?” Once more the gatekeeper ducked his question and asked the traveller, “What were the people like where you just came from?” The second traveller was enthusiastic in his response ” You couldn’t meet a better bunch of people. They were hospitable and, to a man and woman, kind and considerate.” “Well I think you will find the people here just the same,” smiled the gatekeeper as he waved the traveller in.

All day, every day we tell ourselves stories: he is like that, she always does this, they have never liked me. We carry around with us our simplistic versions of others. That they are generalisations is bad enough, but it means that the picture we hold in our minds, that we think is the truth is not what reality is – it is not the person we see in front of us. The stories we tell about our father, our partner, our boss are not our father, our partner or our boss. They are just stories – based on an event or series of events that definitely happened – but just stories nevertheless. The trouble is they block us from being able to experience all of our lives. These distorted and lazy tales create the ruts into which we all fall. The full picture of other people and of our broader lives is dulled by the preconceived ideas we cling on to.

Therefore it is becomes our challenge to notice this internal tale-spinning and drop the repeating circles our minds can restrict us to. We are living on autopilot and we are missing out. Within our mind’s stories lie our prejudices and our lapses into boredom. Without them there is possible a more joyful, empathetic and compassionate way of living. Being mindful can unentangle us from it all and allow us to ski with freedom like Eilidh.

As the Mindfulness teacher Christina Feldman says “Being present invites us to allow the memories and the stories rooted in the past to be just whispers in our minds that we no longer solidly with unwise attention.”

The main ideas from this post were all taken from Christina Feldman’s book “The Buddhist path to simplicity” and the inspiration to understand it more clearly was from Eilidh Johnstone.


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“Clarity of mind” meditation

kathleen mcdonald

Overview

This is a mix of Kathleen McDonald’s “Meditation on the Clarity of Mind” Part 3 chapter 2 in “How To Meditate” and Pema Chodron’s ‘Using Thoughts as an Object of Meditation’ in “How to Meditate” p. 70. Any benefit this meditation brings is a result of the understanding and realisations of these two experienced and revered practitioners.

The philosophy behind this meditation (you don’t have to read this, you can skip to the meditation practice itself just below)

Thoughts are not solid. They are not real. The argument you act out in your mind isn’t happening and may well not happen at all. The fine meal you are dreaming of won’t be occurring until next week and when it does it won’t be like the dream you are having about it now anyway. Seeing thoughts like this helps us to escape from the ‘catastrophisation’ that goes on in our head, where we start to believe the negative storylines we invent so they become solid and real to us. We don’t have to deny them entry or squash them deep down to try to forget they exist. Nor do we need to smash them with a hammer or fight them to the ground. Instead we can lightly touch these thoughts, say ‘thinking’ to ourselves and let them dissolve away.

If we are free ourselves of adding a sense of solidity to things that have none we can start to also start to loosen the ties of our ingrained mental habits. When someone mentions our boss we don’t have to run down that overworn path of tales we, without fail, recount of what she will do and say to us. We don’t have to get lost in dreams of “if only” and “how marvellous it would be if …” Seeing thoughts, emotions and feelings as dreamlike relieves us of so much burden. We can begin to understand how all that we create in our mind is less solid than we give it credit for and then we can see how restricted we were, how we made such a big deal about something that does not need to have a hold over us.

Consequently we begin to experience how vast our lives can be when we don’t attach or push away from all our experiences as though they were solid and real. Right there lies true freedom.

The Meditation Practice Itself 

1/ Take up the correct posture via the 6 points we have already learnt. (See previous meditation instruction here if it helps)

  • Feet/Legs
  • Seat
  • Torso/back
  • Hands
  • Eyes
  • Face

“Bring ease to your posture. It’s so important not to get into a major struggle but to simply try to be as relaxed and comfortable as you can. In each of these six points, you want to embody a sense of relaxation, openness and dignity; you want to embody an expression of being awake and confident.” Pema Chodron

2/ Become mindful of your outbreath. The instruction is “Just be aware of the normal and uncontrived outbreath. Follow it, be with it; be aware of it. “ Spend about 5-10 minutes doing this or until you are fully relaxed and aware of the outbreath.

3/ Once your awareness has become sharp turn your attention to the clarity of your consciousness. Your consciousness, or mind, is whatever you are experiencing at the moment; physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, emotions. The nature of each of these experiences is clarity (like a still glass of water). Focus your attention on this clear, pure nature of the mind.

Thoughts will still arise and when they do let them pass through. Thoughts come and thoughts go. Just observe them. Take the same approach with physical sensations, feelings and emotions. They are clear by nature and without substance.

If this is hard at first meditate on a mental image of clarity … Imagine lying on a hilltop and staring up at a sky that is completely clear and free of clouds. Concentrate on this vast unobstructed emptiness, Imagine that it flows down and embraces you and your surroundings; everything becomes empty like space. Hold this experience; feel that the nature of your mind is like this clear empty space.

 

4/ When you finish dedicate any benefit you may have gained from this practice either to all sentient beings or to people you know who themselves are struggling; let go of the result of the meditation as well.

 

Resources:

Kathleen McDonald’s book can be found here

Pema Chodron’s book can be found here

Other sellers other than amazon are of course available

how to meditate pema chodron

 


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“Set Free” by Emma Slade

set free

This is an excellent read. I loved it. Don’t worry if you think you will be following a  familiar plot; rich career type has road to Damascus moment and sees the error of their ways. This book is not like that at all. At first it seems being held up at gunpoint in a plush Jakarta hotel will be the driving force behind a story of moving from materialism to spiritualism. But the appeal of this story is the normality and honesty of it. It’s not a autobiography of a heroine battling against the odds, but of the author as a fallible yet determined woman learning from errors and trying to break ingrained habits. There are many false starts and choices that lead to dead ends. There are mistakes and compromises throughout. Even reflecting on the hold up Emma’s response is a mental muddle of compassion for the gunman and her own all-encompassing PTSD

Emma (or Pema – her ordained name) story moves back and forward  from quiet Kent and Bhutan to busy London and Hong Kong. Throughout it is a search to find a balance between all the competing demands and expectations of a modern life; between meditation and action, West and East, family and solitariness, physical and spiritual, success and happiness, being a mother and a nun.  Emma Slade has written a book that shows how we can keep all the plates spinning and still have a focus on compassion for ourselves and others. I highly recommend it to you.


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An Attitude to Meditation

how to meditate pema chodron

My favourite part of meditation is when I am not “officially meditating” and I notice that gentle and curious awareness I occasionally feel on the cushion arise during a different part of my day. Consequently I loved the chapter in Pema Chodron’s How to Meditate where she talks about are the 5 qualities to bring to your meditation that as a result you should also be able to see develop in your daily life from your meditation.

I also like them because they are a more detailed version of the three approaches she discussed in When Things Fall Apart: precision, gentleness and letting go. (I wrote about this here )

Below is merely some brief notes on what Pema Chodron said with a couple of my own small additions.

Steadfastness

  • It’s like a loyalty to ourselves or more accurately our experiences.
  • It’s an  approach “that whatever comes up, that’s ok”
  • Maybe you sit down and for 20 minutes your mind is a rage. Don’t be hard on yourself, you stayed with that for the whole session, so well done!
  • It’s a gesture of compassion to yourself

Clear seeing

  • In meditation we start to notice when we start to spin off into one of our chains of thoughts. This is clear seeing
  • By being steadfast we begin to see ourselves so much more clearly
  • This clear seeing includes our judgements, our patterns, our opinions, our defence mechanisms and our ingrained habits

Courage

  • The first two qualities lead to this one, but it grows only slowly
  • The courage to experience and not bury and deny  your emotional discomforts
  • The courage to not to cower before your emotional discomforts
  • The courage not to shift into a fantasy or a distraction before your emotional discomforts
  • If we get this courage we can get an insight into how we are or how the world is
  • We can have a minor change in our world view
  • This courage means we can ‘loosen up our conditioning

Being awake to our lives

  • Being awake to the present moment and all the surprises this will always bring
  • We say we like surprise and thrills, but …
  • This is being awake to the next (because there is always another one) embarrassing moment when we lose our composure and patience.
  • It’s about being more flexible and tolerant to the present moment.
  • And with it as a by product comes humour

No big deal

  • Just like that calmness you have when you say ‘thinking’ during a meditation session
  • Don’t make your problems so big you end up running yourself down and wallowing in them
  • Don’t make any progress feel so great that your pride gets in the way and knocks the stuffing out of your practice next time


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How to Meditate

how to meditate pema chodron

I have been lucky enough to read quite a bit of Pema Chodron over the last few years and have come to use many of her suggestions and techniques to guide my meditation practice. I have gathered these below in case they are of use to anyone. If you do find them helpful then you should know they are taken primarily from her book “Wisdom of No Escape” and also “How to Meditate”. I highly recommend both these books. The former looks more at how our lives need meditation while the latter looks closer at meditation techniques first before applying it to the rest of our lives. If you already have a practice maybe “How to Meditate” would be the best of the two to go to first and if you do not meditate regularly yet then “The Wisdom of No Escape” has a more simple technique to get going with. However, if you are anything like me reading either one will have a hugely beneficial impact on your life and on the people in your lives as well.

I apologise for the instructions abeing rather wordy, but I found it hard to edit Pema Chodron’s original ideas. And indeed it is fair criticism to say that you would be better reading the original description and explanation as they are from someone with true realisations rather than from my amateurish experience. However, if you need a start (or restart) to your practice and you haven’t the books I leave this here in case it is of value. If you have any questions please just leave a comment.

Meditation Instructions

What to do

  1. a) Posture
  • Seat –Keep yourself balanced and stable with the back of the seat slightly higher than the front. This tilt helps your torso.
  • Hands – In your lap, face down. How far forward they are affects your overall posture or in a simple mudra; right on top of left with thumbs lightly touching.
  • Torso – straight and relaxed. Pema Chodron calls it “keeping your heart open”. Be aware of tension in the shoulders
  • Eyes – half open. Helps us to stay with the present and taking an “all inclusive” approach.
  • Face – relaxed, mouth slightly open. Be aware of tension in the jaw
  • Legs – crossed. But your knees should be lower than your waist. If this is not possible then a chair is best. Sit with a straight back your ands on your lap and you feet flats on the floor, directly under your knees.

Pema Chodron says

“Bring ease to your posture. It’s so important not to get into a major struggle but to simply try to be as relaxed and comfortable as you can. In each of these six points, you want to embody a sense of relaxation, openness and dignity; you want to embody an expression of being awake and confident.”

 

b)Be mindful of your outbreath (the precision, gentleness and letting go)

(i)Just be aware of the normal and uncontrived outbreath. Follow it, be with it; be aware of it. This seems simple, but this it the precision right here. That we always come back to it sharpens our mind and awareness; hence precision.

But our minds wander; it’s what they do and when this happens, we simply notice what has happened and say ‘thinking’ to ourselves – this label is also about precision.

(ii) We have already brought in an idea of relaxation to our posture and the gentleness follows right on in from this. Firstly, we don’t have 100% attention on the outbreath to the exclusion of all else. Our eyes are open and equally we are alive to what else is happening. Maybe we have ¼ of our attention on the breath as it goes out. We have a light touch on our outbreath. There is no goal here. We are not trying to rid our mind of all these thoughts. There are so many and we couldn’t do it if we tried. We just try to be aware.

We should also have a light touch when we say ‘thinking’. Notice how you say it to yourself. Don’t get angry; don’t chastise yourself. If you have just noticed that you were distracted then that is a good thing. Well done you. So if you say thinking in a judgmental way try saying it again more gently before returning to the outbreath.

(iii) We can directly work on being more gentle and maybe on being more precise but the ‘letting go’ only comes as a result of the other two. It is not really tangible in that way. This is also why this particular technique focuses on just the outbreath. There is a natural gap or pause between one outbreath and another. This is an opportunity to let go as the outbreath dissolves into the air and into the room. There is nothing to hold onto … and over time with practice we can realise we don’t have to be caught in the grip of our fears and our passions, of our anger and our anxieties, of our depressed thoughts and our addictions. How liberating is that!

 

And if this is too much to remember at first then just remember this:

  • Posture
  • Precision
  • Gentleness
  • Letting Go


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Your Less Than Perfect Holiday

pool

But my! Work is intense, packed to the gills, unrelenting and exhausting. Holidays are the beacon of hope; a future panacea of peace from the hurly burly of daily life.

But then the actual holidays are never just that. They are imperfect, frequently unsatisfying and most certainly not the answer to all our prayers. Even on the good days – those times we spent so long looking forward – nothing ever works smoothly. Reality never matches the future our internal monologue had asserted would be wonderful.

Buddha stated that this imperfection and dis-satisfactoriness (called dukkha) is caused by our grasping onto things, ideas and thoughts we think are solid and permanent but which never are. We have an active misunderstanding of how things are. Our thoughts come and go, they are just events, they are not solid and real. Now this is really good news: if thoughts are not me or you, it they aren’t actual things, then we can all be free from the overthinking that everyone does and no one properly admits to. Mark Williams says “This frees you up from the dislocated reality we have all conjured up for ourselves, through endless worrying brooding and ruminating.” (Mindfulness; finding peace in frantic world).

But it isn’t just the negative thoughts we can drop. A more realistic view of our mental activity doesn’t just mean we can begin to see debilitating self critical thoughts as just passing through. We can also avoid expecting everything to work out perfectly and imagining all will be well; that our holiday will match the brochure or the Facebook photos our friends shared from the poolside. If instead of clinging on to ideas we can learn to stop judging and comparing what is around us to how we think it should be, we can avoid narrowing our whole experience down to a competition our life can never win. Real freedom right there if we can begin to move away from being “compelled to draw only one preconceived opinion” (also Mark Williams from the same book) and allow ourselves the chance to experience what is around us just for what it is. Come on!  Leave those thoughts alone and be kind to yourself instead.

 

(Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book is available here )