Dukkhaboy

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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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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.


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Being in the bath

bath 2

I much prefer taking a shower to a bath. I have never voted Conservative. But I would like to defend a Conservative MP from the criticism he is receiving for spending an hour a day in the bath. The Guardian is making disparaging remarks about men in their 50’s being naked and ridiculing this habit. Whilst The Mirror is worried about his £5 a month water bill. Both articles sneer at a public servant regularly taking some time out of his day to step back and look for the interconnections and wholeness of his life and job. The BBC at least gives Tim Loughton the chance to put his side of the story.

Finding and fitting in the time to pause and think, to reflect and become aware of ourselves, our body and mind and our surroundings will enable us to become better at decision making and concentrating for the rest of the day. As Thich Nhat Hanh says “Doing nothing is doing something.” The belief that Tim Loughton is wasting time and indulging himself because he is not rushing around all helter-skelter is the attitude  that commits us all to live at break neck speed without a thought for our mental welfare. Until we learn to value being as much as doing the mental health crises will continue to be unsolvable. Scoffing at someone for doing so is exactly the same line of thought that condemns us all to be mute when we should be discussing mental health.

So let us please value and encourage more people to stop and be for a period of time every day. I am delighted that one of our MPs is leading by example by lying in his bath every morning.

 


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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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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 )


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Noise

I came across this beautiful quote last week from Ajahn Chah

“If my mind doesn’t go out to disturb the noise,
the noise won’t disturb me.”

Was lucky enough to have week’s family holiday this Easter on the Dorset coast. So as not to be in the way of anyone else waking up I took to meditating on the beach. I thought it would be peaceful and quiet and conducive to some calm meditation. There was hardly any wind. However when I sat down on this all but deserted beach the first thing i noticed was that waves, even small lapping ones don’t ever stop turning over and over. With little sea noise I could also hear more gulls more clearly more of the time. This annoyed me

Fortunately, I was trying to get to grips with the basics of the ideas of emptiness and cause and effect, which I had been reading about in Geshe Tashi Tsering book “Emptiness” (preview here). I tried to reflect on the idea of all things being dependent on causes, parts and their relationship to other things and events. Because if you don’t go out to meet and disturb the noise by adding on your own stories and concepts to it then that noise is just a wave, just a gull calling. In the end neither has a concrete inherent part to it that I can get worked up about. Unless of course I choose to.