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7 Ways to Approach Mindfulness

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“Full Catastrophic Living” by Jon Kabat Zinn is so frequently described as landmark or classic or masterpiece that there is almost an obligation to have it on your shelf if you are at all interested in secular mindfulness. But then it’s size at 600+ pages means it be left untouched and maybe like a brief history of time become a book that more often than not we feel is mocking us for our lack of dedication or intelligence in not reading it. Well I haven’t read it all the way through thats for sure. However, out of the bits I have looked at the pages on “The attitudinal foundations of mindfulness” are my favourite, even if their name is somewhat of a mouthful. But if you aren’t prepared to spend £25 on the book just for these dozen pages then fear not for I have 3 solutions for you:

Firstly a simple list of the 7 attitudes Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends to adopt:

  • Non judging
  • Patience
  • Beginners mind
  • Trust
  • Non striving
  • Acceptance
  • Letting go

 

Secondly, (and the best option even if they are called the 9 attitudes for some reason ) is this excellent video of the man himself outlining and describing them.

 

Finally the 3rd option is some brief notes and ideas I have written for each one. All the good ideas themselves come from the book or from an excellent discussion at the Salisbury Jamyang Buddhist group. I have just jotted them down here.

Non judging

Oh! the constant stream of judgment, labeling and categorising that goes on in our heads; everyone of our thoughts and emotions that arise come with a blind reaction which then leads to an automatic stream of thoughts, which often end up having very little basis at all in actual fact. So we should step back and, as best we can, suspend judgment and simply observe whatever comes up.

Patience

“Patience is a kind of wisdom” is a lovely phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn. We try to give ourselves the room to be with whatever comes up – after all, whatever is happening right now  is all that there can possibly be in this present moment. And impatience for something else cannot change it one iota . There’s no point wishing away this moment for a better one in the future, which is why patience is a good counter balance for an over active or easily bored mind.

Beginner’s Mind

Try to see things as if for the first time. Mark Williams talks about ‘habit releasers’. Having a freshness to what happens can help us avoid old negative habits that maybe we weren’t fully aware of. This of course is easier said than done, but making simple changes in our daily life like sitting in a different seat on the bus or walking a different road to work can help us have a brief insight into the power of beginner’s mind. Try it.

Trust

All this teaching, the books we read, the videos we click on, only show us the way. We need to have faith in how things feel for us. Try it out and if it doesn’t work then fair do’s. Once we can trust ourselves more and own basic goodness more we will not only “enhance the loveliness within ourselves” (Christina Feldman), but we will also find we are able to the same with other people.

Non Striving

Striving means a rejection of the present. And so there is no aim in meditation or mindfulness except to be who we already are and where we already are, which of course we are doing anyway. If we are angry we pay attention to being angry, if we are judging we pay attention to our judgements, if we are happy we pay attention to that. This non striving allied with patience will work. Trust it.

Acceptance

There is a lot of debate over this word. I know a mindfulness teacher who works with cancer patients who avoids using it at all and I can understand why. However, I think acceptance is more of a willingness to see things as they really are rather than a passive resignation to the bad and unfair stuff in our lives. On the cushion we do this by not trying to be something else, somewhere else or someone else in each moment.

Letting Go

If we can go to sleep we already know how to let go. Each night we let go of our body and mind before falling asleep. See that angry thought? Let it go. See that desire? What happens when we let it go?

If we find it difficult to let something go then we can instead focus on its opposite; what does it feel like to grasp onto something?

 

Books mentioned above:

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn

Buddhist Path to Simplicity by Christina Feldman

 Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Mark williams website here

A longer list of books on Mindfulness and Meditation with brief reviews can be found here

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I know you

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Before Buddha gained enlightenment he vowed to sit under the Bodhi tree until it happened. No matter what. Not until his bum hurt or his knees ached. Not until he got a bit thirsty or his friends came round to call. Instead he was going to stay right there until he got it completely done.

But as he sat for longer and gained more and more insight, things got trickier. It was at then that Mara appeared. In Buddhist history/mythology Mara is the Lord (or demon) of death and the desire realm. His aim is to stop people reaching Enlightenment. He’s the kind of guy who delights in helping others fail, so he wanted to do anything to tempt Buddha away from his spiritual path. He plied him with images of riches and beautiful women, showed him the lands he could rule, but none of this worked. So his final trick was his sneakiest as he tried to convince Buddha that going for Enlightenment was all a waste of time and not worth the effort at all. “I mean what is the point? When you get there you’ll be disappointed and you’re not good enough to do it anyway.” 

There in the hours before his Enlightenment, supposedly at the peak of his spiritual path, Buddha experienced self-doubt, temptation, desire and distraction. Of course when we sit in meditation it is the same. Within a split second of hearing the instruction and guidance our mind is away, turning over old stories and running with future fantasies. When this happens the technique is to simply recognise that meandering, that mindlessness and return to the focus of attention. Pema Chodron suggests saying ‘thinking’ when we realise that has happened. I heard Mark Williams use ‘gently escort’ in his guidance. But any instruction to ‘return to the breath’ is just helping us to learn how our awareness functions; its patterns and habits, or as Christina Feldman calls it, ‘our whole world of reactivity’. It is said when Buddha was faced by this onslaught of his mind by Mara he simply said “I know you” to each new wave of attack and that to me sounds like the ‘return to your breath’ tecnique when it has been perfected.

In mindfulness we are instructed to be curious and open minded, to notice and accept whatever arises. Of course normally when something appears our familiar stories rear up and gallop down the same old rutted tracks and before we know it the autopilot of our mind has stolen us away from the present moment into some past story or some future possibility. But if we can do what Buddha did then we can learn to live in a way that takes power away form all these thoughts and self-uncertainty and live in a way that we our in control of our own lives. As Akong Rinpoche said “When obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.”

So there are three ways in which practicing mindfulness can help in achieving this. Firstly, we need some of that resolve learn and patience to want to change. Secondly, to pause and find a sliver of stillness in the daily hurly burley of our lives and the life of our mind. And finally when that develops we can start to recognise and understand how our mind works.

The good news is that every time we sit down to practice we will eventually notice that our mind has wandered – even if it is only when the bell rings at the end of the session – and then we can delight in having been aware and having found a pause from all that stuff and chatter. Even that one moment is a fabulous thing, because when we learn to pause and uncover a quiet moment out of the gusting wind of our minds, we can start to explore the habits and patterns that lie underneath. True self wisdom can start now. “Ah there I go again” strategising a future that will probably never happen or replaying a slight and an argument from yesterday” Whatever our particular well-worn paths, they will start to appear as we sit and patiently, deliberately, slowly notice them. Right there is what Tchich Nhat Hanh meant when he said “In the sunlight of awareness, everything becomes sacred.”

The book that prompted me to write this is Christina Feldman’s “The Buddhist Path to Simplicity” all the good points from this were generated by the 6th chapter on emotion.


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Keeping your mindfulness practice going

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So you’ve been to a class, followed a course. You’ve been able to pause and uncover  a calmness in your mind that wasn’t there before seemingly. But you don’t want this development to fade; to be like the New Year’s resolution gym membership, unused after February 4th.

I have some simple tips that are based on finishing an MBSR course, but would work for any mindfulness practice, for anyone who is trying and maybe struggling to introduce a regular time for meditation in their day to day life They are not written in order of importance and you may not find that they can all apply to you, but here are some sound methods to keep you mindful. all the links are to written guidelines. If you want a audio of any of the practices then please look at previous “quietening the mind posts” on this blog.

  1. When you wake up, pause. Notice 3 breaths in and out. Be aware of the mood colouring your thoughts or the thoughts leading your mood as you lie in bed. Try to see these thoughts as just mental events. Like in the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Mention Amy Miller here.
  2. Before you go out through the front door (maybe instead of the practices in 1 above) gently go through the Tchich Nhat Hanh practice I have frequently mentioned here before.
  3. During the day use “portable practices” the ones you can take with you. a) 3 Step Breathing Space. b) The dot b practice from the Mindfulness in schools programme
  4. Pick a daily, and maybe even mundane, activity to be mindful in. “Wash the dishes just to wash the dishes”, wash the dishesslow down and feel the mug of tea on your lips and the drink in your mouth or brush your teeth mindfully. Savour the moment.
  5. Do a bit more exercise; go for a walk round the block, garden more, cycle or whatever suits you. Maintain that curious interest in how your body feels as you do this.
  6. See your thoughts and emotions as visitors (like that The Guest House poem by Rumi). Invite them in with an open-hearted mind. Then maybe your automatic blind reactions to them will dissolve and their control over you will weaken.
  7. To help you with 5 don’t forget you can also use the 3 step breathing space when you feel your anxiety levels rise
  8. Your breath is always with you, always there to be your anchor; whether at the start of the day, as in 1, or at any other time after. You can always return home to your breath.
  9. Most importantly, keep your formal practice going. Whether you have preferred the one of the Sitting mindfulness practice, Mindful Walking or the body scan – practice it regularly. Do it for as long as you can, but remember there is no minimum or maximum time. Do what feels right for you. Your practice will support you in the rest of your day and the rest of your life. It is the blessing that you can give yourself.

 

Enough

Enough. These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

We have refused

Again and again

Until now.

Until now.

David Whyte

(his book Consolations available here )

 

Finally, if you want to develop your practice and see it seep more into your regular life then you could do a lot worse that watch this from Jon Kabat-Zinn on the attitudes to mindfulness.

 

 


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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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On retreat – what’s that like?

I promised Carol I would write about my retreat experience at Gaia House. I was struggling with what to say about t what is such a personal, internal and immeasurable experience when my 11yo sorted me out. On my train journey home she texted me. This is how it went (though, bless her, she had sent the first one whilst I was away and incommunicado)


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A breathing meditation from Tchich Nhat Hanh

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A mindfulness practice from Tchich Nhat Hanh

 (This is taken from his book “Silence” ISBN 978-1-84604-434-2)

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in

Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out

(In. Out.)

 

Breathing in, my breath grows deep

Breathing out, my breath grows slow

(Deep. Slow.)

 

Breathing I am aware of my body,

Breathing out I calm my body

(Aware of body. Calming.)

 

Breathing in, I smile

Breathing out, I release

(Smile. Release.)

 

Breathing in I dwell in the present moment

Breathing out I enjoy the present moment

(Dwell. Enjoy.)

 

 Tchich Nhat Hanh’s instructions:

With the in breath say the first of the two lines quietly to yourself and with the out breath say the second. With the following in and out breaths you can say just the key words.

My brief thoughts:

You could say this as a short drop in type practice and simply say the whole thing once through. Once you have memorised the 10 lines you could do this at any place and at any time of day.

Alternatively, you could use this as the basis of a sitting practice, taking your time over each couplet. I have done this in recent weeks and added in a body scan after I have said the 3rd couplet. I love the way the ideas start from the breath and build out to the whole of the present moment as an all encompassing idea and event. I also love the happiness in this practice. There is a deepness to it, but not one that comes to you overburdened with seriousness and intellectual striving. Instead he introduces you lightly and kindly to your present moment, undisturbed by thoughts of past or future.


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Mindful Walking

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I never got mindful walking. I was always a sit down on my cushion meditator, breathing in breathing out, getting distracted, returning to the breath and getting distracted again meditator. Then 10 days ago in a room with a view of the Nantlle Ridge Mountains in Snowdonia I found mindful walking to work.  Maybe it was Susanna’s wonderful guidance, maybe it was me settling the balance between my faith and doubt in having another go at it, maybe it was the supportive caring company – all of us trying together squeezed in to the room, maybe it was the cold floor keeping me alert to my toes and feet through my thin socks. Whatever it was, I got it.

And now I can feel it feedings in to my other practice. Walking flows more effortlessly into the next part of the day. When I finish a sitting practice, I stand up and move into the next room to carry on the day. It can feel like I am concluding the spiritual part of the day and then moving back into normal life. Walking more naturally avoids that threshold crossing; it is simpler just to carry on. Therefore mindful walking can help me spend more of the day mindfully. As I queue I can be aware of the feeling of my feet, as I walk from car to front door I can do so noticing the feeling of my feet on the ground beneath me.

And so I hope that now when I get up from my sitting meditation I can take some of it with me. Sat at my desk having just pressed send or save, I might feel my outbreath for a minute and when my mind wanders I might gently and precisely bring it back again.