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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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“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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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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Talking to myself


Many times I sit on my cushion I spend the 20 minutes simply thinking about how things could be or should be; then the alarm goes and I have hardly even noticed, let alone paid attention to, even one breath.

This morning I was reading Pema Chodron in ‘When things fall apart’ on discursive thought. She explained how it is one of the things that we lean toward that stops us properly feeling how we are right now. We hook onto it and away we go endlessly chatting to ourselves, avoiding the ‘edginess of our loneliness’ as she calls it.

In meditation, we try to let go of that internal monologue and rest without moving left or right, without blaming someone else or playing our dog-eared victim card, without seeking resolution from this present moment. Because all our life we have sought  this resolution and never has it brought more than momentary satisfaction before the next urge to jump toward hope or away from fear kicks in.

Instead we could try breaking our habit and ‘sit and feel what we feel…. stay on the spot…. not judge or grasp at whatever arises in the mind’. Then we can ‘discover a fresh unbiased state of being’ (all from chapter 6)

I share all this firstly because what Pema Chodron says is wonderful and it can help us all who would like to be more mindful or improve our practice and secondly because by thinking, reflecting and writing about her work I can understand it all just a bit more even if at the moment my practice is more akin to this cartoon below then what i have just tried to describe.


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That isn’t me

Sitting down is rarely some marvellously peaceful happening for me. More often than not, I am replaying past perceived injustices (“she should never have said that to me”) or imagining how I could do better in the future (“…. and then they will all like and respect me again”)

There is one thing I am beginning to understand even tough it is only conceptually. It has come though hearing 3 similar teachings. Firstly, for a while now I have been attempting to follow Pema Chodron’s suggested meditation technique. I try to notice I am distracted away from my out breath, say to myself ‘thinking’ and without judgement return to the object of concentration. As this stands this is as much mindfulness as it is Buddhist meditation.

Secondly, earlier this year I heard Venerable Amy Miller talk. I remember her telling us to see thoughts as ‘mental events’ and not as who we are. So it’s not that “I am angry”or “I am jealous”. Rather you can view it as “there is an angry thought” or “there is a jealous mental event”. Immediately  there rises the possibility of a different and truer perspective on it all.

Finally, I have been studying Buddhist psychology through Geshe Tashi Tsering’s book of the same name In this he explains Buddhists say people have (i) a main mind that is all clear and all knowing and (ii) mental events that colour this. He compares it to a blank screen and the images beamed upon it. “We never really see the screen, because we are so caught up in the images projected on to it.”

Putting this together gives a fuller picture of how mindfulness works in Buddhism. It is more than just a technique for obtaining calm and letting go. Instead it can become a step to better understanding our mind and our misplaced sense of self. The mental events of our mind are less permanent and solid than we believe. So that when we are able to see this they immediately have less hold over us. Powerful stuff indeed.

 


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New School Year: one Breath at a time

Time for a fresh start, following 5 and a half weeks of relaxing, recharging, reflecting and more recently gearing up, its a New School Year. The last 2 Septembers have caused me much anxiety and even illness. This year I want it to be different and I have a little plan.

My meditation practice ain’t much (30 minutes of meditation will always struggle against 23 and a 1/2 hours of ego as Trungpa Rinpoche would say), but I hope to begin to use it to directly improve (i) the way I deal with my day and (ii) the way I deal with other people. When I practice mindfulness or shamatha on my cushion I try to notice when my mind has wandered and then gently and precisely bring it back to the present. A few moments later when it wanders once more I do the same thing, over and over and over. I make no claims to be a mindful meditator, letalone a mindful person, but I am practicing and I want to bring the practice of meditation more often into my daily life. Shantideva says at the start of the 5th chapter of “The Guide to a Bodhisattva’s way of life”

Those who wish to keep a rule of life

Must guard their minds in perfect self possession

Without this guard upon the mind

No discipline can ever be maintained

The ability to bring my mind back to the present will allow me to let go of my prejudices and petty disgruntlements. If I catch that thought early, or even as it rises, I can gently and precisely notice it and bring my mind back to the present. Then, seeing things as they are – without my prejudices of me and them, good and bad, acceptance and rejection – “all my fears will come to nothing” (also from “The Guide to a Bodhisattva’s way of life” chapter 5)

I am old enough to know I will frequently fail at this. I will be cursing colleagues, students parents and the world in general once the gap-free chaos of term time restarts. But I also know that underneath there is mindfulness and awareness available to me and that with it I can be more generous, disciplined, patient and enthusiastic. Hopefully too my concentration and meditation will in turn be deepened by the changes in the other 23 and 1/2 hours of the day. The last verse in the 5th Chapter says

But all this must be acted out in truth

For what is to be gained by mouthing syllables?

What invalid was ever helped

By merely reading in the doctor’s treatises?

Please note any understanding I have of Shantideva’s work is because I have read the wonderful Pema Chodron’s “No time to Lose” Which is available from Wisdom Books here


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One way to Spend the Rest of Your Life

I just read this paragraph written by Pema Chodron and I thought it was beautiful

“With each meditation session, you could train in opening to whatever arises, and relaxing with the immediacy of your experience. Just acknowledge your pleasant and unpleasant thoughts without bias and let them pass away. Then at the time of death, you will be ready to let go of your attachment to this life and surrender to the process of dissolving.”

It seems to me she has just described how to live a purposeful life.

It is taken from her book “No time to Lose” in the chapter on enthusiasm. There are reviews of the book and where to buy it here