Mindfulness Meditation – The Evidence 2. The Details

August saw the publication, by the American Journal of Psychiatry, of a seminal study into the effects of mindfulness training on a group of US Marines taught during their counter-insurgency training prior to deployment to Afghanistan.

This was the culmination of five years work by Elizabeth Stanley and her colleagues from the Mind Fitness Training Institute – M-Fit.

One of the difficulties in studying human experience is how to isolate individuals from external events that may affect their responses and so invalidate the findings of the studies. This is one of the reasons, along with a wide range of measures, rigorous analysis and adequate controls that makes this study so important.

The study, entitled: ‘Modifying Resilience Mechanisms in At-Risk Individuals: A Controlled Study of Mindfulness Training in Marines Preparing for Deployment’ is available here .

A useful synopsis article from Science Daily is available here.

I can’t conceive of a group more difficult to convince of the benefits of mindfulness than the military. Here is a quotation lifted from the Washington Times  from US Marine Sergeant Nathan Hampton on his mindfulness training. You can see what his initial position might have been when he was told about it. :)

“A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time. Why are we sitting around a classroom doing weird meditative stuff? But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit.”

It is important to understand the context of this study. These guys are going back into an environment that has seen them losing their friends and suffering greatly. Some of their comrades may well be suffering from PTSD or they may have recovered from it themselves The counter-insurgency traing is held in a simulated environment that is apparently just like being in Afghanistan. You can see it here.

According to the authors this is “the first study of the effect of mindfulness training utilizing multiple domains of measurement”.
There were *significant* positive differences between the mindfulness training group and the control group using the following measures:

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing rate
  • Neuropeptide Y (stress hormone indicator)
  • Interoception measured via Insula activity (body awareness, critical for effective decision making)
  • The Response to Stressful Experiences Scale

I think this is a ground-breaking study and adds extremely valuable evidence to the already reliable body of evidence accruing to prove the benefits of mindfulness meditation.

If you want to find out more, drop me a line at robert@middlewayconsulting.com

Mindfulness Meditation – The Evidence

2014 has been an important year for the awareness of mindfulness meditation in the United States. In February, Time Magazine announced on its cover that there is a “Mindful Revolution”.

The November 2014 cover of Scientific American announced that meditation “changes the brain boosting focus and reducing stress”.

August saw the release, by the American Journal of Psychiatry, of what I feel to be the single most compellingly credible study to date on the benefits of mindfulness meditation which bears the impressive title of: ‘Modifying Resilience Mechanisms in At-Risk Individuals: A Controlled Study of Mindfulness Training in Marines Preparing for Deployment’. This seminal research (more of which in a future post), is part of an ongoing, rigorous, controlled study of the effects of mindfulness meditation on the levels of stress encountered by US Marines during their counter-insurgency training prior to deployment. The study reported ‘significant’ reductions in stress for the meditating group in each of the five measures used in comparison to the control group. I shall also post at a later date on how mindfulness meditation is being used to assist in managing Post Traumatic Stress in operatives that have returned from combat.

There is a significant and growing body of scientific evidence that increasingly proves that the wellness benefits of mindfulness meditation are significant and far-reaching. This body of evidence currently consists of over 3000 research publications filed on the NCBI databases. This is being added to at a prodigious rate. 477 studies were initiated in 2012. Mindfulness Research publishes the highlights on a monthly basis which consists of 30 papers per month.

 

Mindfulness and walking by Eckhart Tolle

If you go into a forest with your mind only, you’ll only notice the sounds and the mind will try to interpret them. You might think you’re present; but you’re not really, you’re simply judging what you hear. But if you become aware of the silent dimension underneath the sounds and in between the sounds, then you become present because the moment you become aware of the silence, you also have become silent.Eckhart Tolle

Mindfulness tip of the day – turn mobile data off by default

Being bombarded with a constant stream of messages is a First World Problem but it is a very real one.

Not only endless notifications but more importantly the pull of the Twitter and Facebook streams is a real issue for some of us. It is difficult to tell people to turn our phones off in this day and age, but turning off data means you can still be contacted by your nearest and dearest, but the lure and distraction of the alternative digital world is abated for a while.

When you *really need* to tweet or check Facebook, you can just turn it back on again.

Have a mindful day…

What mindfulness meditation isn’t

Things that mindfulness and mindfulness meditation aren’t

  • Mindfulness isn’t religious
  • You won’t have to sit in any special way – we like to sit in comfort
  • We are not hippies though if you are, feel free to come along
  • We don’t try to levitate
  • You don’t need to learn to believe anything or not believe anything
  • It is not an intellectual learning experience, you can take what you want from the classes
  • We aren’t trying to contact our inner child
  • There is no chanting
  • There is no dancing
  • We don’t summon up invisible energies
  • Mindfulness meditation isn’t a trance-like state
  • Mindfulness takes time and patience though there are universal benefits for everyone
  • Mindfulness and meditation is not avoiding reality – we all go to work in the morning
  • There is no hypnosis or anything else scary or weird

If you would like to find out more about mindfulness pop along to one of our meetings.

5 quick wins for reducing anxiety

5 Quick wins for reducing anxiety

Here are some quick wins for you if you are in a difficult place. They will take two weeks to really work, which in the world of chronic anxiety is lightning speed!

1. Stop wearing a watch unless it is utterly essential

If you don’t have a busy schedule you don’t need to constantly be aware of the time and if you have a mobile you have access to the time if you really need it. Checking the time constantly keeps you thinking of some future event and moves the focus of your attention away from the present moment.

For most of us, for most of the time, the present moment is overwhelmingly good. The future is always unpredictable and full of potential threats, so it becomes a source of anxiety. leave the watch in a drawer.

2. Stop drinking caffeine

Caffeine from tea, coffee and various soft drinks promotes anxiety by releasing adrenaline or epinephrine as it is also known. This promotes a fight or flight response in the body promoting alertness and suppressing sleep.

The effects of caffeine are prolonged and it takes two weeks for the body to return to normal.

3. Reduce your news consumption

If you have every wondered why the news is full of bad news then take a look at this link:

This post explains to marketeers how using negative superlatives such as ‘never’ and ‘worst’ outperforms positive superlatives such as ‘always’ and ‘best’.
http://www.outbrain.com/blog/2013/07/headlines-when-the-best-brings-the-worst-and-the-worst-brings-the-best.html

Each newspaper competes with every other newspaper for the worst possible news. The news media scours the globe for bad news. Viewed through the lens of the news, the world soon becomes a scary place which feeds into our personal beliefs. We all have enough challenges and limitations in our lives without adopting ones that are served up to us by the media.

Discovering bad news is a survival trait that we are programmed for. Our ancestors ‘needed’ to know whether there was plague in a neighbouring village and those that were motivated to move by this bad news would have been the ones that survived. Now that we are no longer in a life or death environment this morbid fascination with bad news works against us.

Ask yourself when was the last time that something you learned from the news changed your life or even, when has anything you read in a newspaper materially benefited you in any way?

We feel we need to ‘keep up with current affairs’ but as someone that stopped reading newspapers several years ago, I still find that there are so many people reading the news all around me that I am aware of the major news anyway and do you ‘really’ need to know about the rest?

Here are a couple of links that may help you to see all of this in a newer perspective:

Why no news is good news from the Guardian
http://www.theguardian.co m/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli

4. Detox from the TV and if you can, stop watching it altogether

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.Groucho Marx

The TV is a parody of reality. I agree that some programmes are educational but the information they provide is largely available through internet research with the difference that you are in control of what you learn and where you go to learn it. Enough to satisfy your knowledge without the baggage of knowing intimately  who is going to get kicked out of the Big Brother room next!

5. Digital detox

I think that there is far too much emphasis on how carrying mobile devices is bad. In itself it isn’t bad. What is bad is the significance we place on the messages we receive. We fail to filter them and so they continually grab our attention dragging us into some unpredictable future event from the overwhelmingly good present moment.

There are a number of strategies that help such as turning off notifications but if we need to respond instantly then we need to find the time to ourselves.

Here are some strategies:

  • Put all of your devices in a drawer on one day over a weekend
  • Put all of your devices away after a certain time in the evening
  • Filter out notifications so you only get the ones that really matter
  • Go on a digital detox holiday

To read about my recent solo retreat and digital detox go here:

http://bromleymindfulness.org.uk/tag/retreat/

 

About mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is a state of mind that cannot really be explained. It has to be experienced. Fortunately, the technique used for learning mindfulness, called mindfulness meditation, is simple and accessible to anyone with patience and an open mind.
There are many, often unhelpful, definitions of mindfulness that can lead students to mistake a stage in their development for the achievement of a mindful state of mind. This happened to me on numerous occasions, so I am wary of trying to define mindfulness but I think that I have a responsibility for explaining it as well as I can so here goes. Remember that the words are not the thing itself. They are pointers to it like a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.

Mindfulness
For me, the experiences that I had in the past that were closest to the state of mindfulness that I currently experience were what have been described by psychologists as ‘peak experiences‘.
Peak experiences are those rare moments where a combination of extraordinary peace of mind, calmness, a sense of connection and purpose transcend daily life to a level that is quite remarkable.
Whenever I experienced this, everything seemed  just right. Time slowed, colours appeared richer and more vibrant, momentarily, life seemed to be enhanced. These moments soon passed, leaving only a memory as I returned to my relatively mundane life.

Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a collection of simple practices that, over time, can lead to mindfulness as an accessible state of mind in our daily lives. This leads to an otherwise elusive calmness and peace of mind.
The basic practice consists of focusing attention on the breath and repeatedly returning that focus to the breath when the mind inevitably wanders. There are a number of other meditations that support this basic practice.

The body scan meditation

Our culture disconnects us from our bodies. We have to relearn that connection along with the connection to our emotions and other people.

If you don’t think this is correct, ask yourself when was the last time that you felt the feeling in your feet from walking along, or even, when was the last time you were aware of your feet at all?

For our first foray into this new world of bodily self-awareness we shall try a little exercise that has been popularised by Eckhart Tolle.

Sit in your favoured meditation position. Hold your hands out, almost parallel in front of you but slightly higher than your shoulders with your arms extended.

Close your eyes and ask yourself how you *know* that your hands are connected to your body.

You should feel your hands now more directly and fully than you will have, possibly for a long time. You may feel tingling, you may feel the blood flowing in your hands and the life in them. Just do this for a few moments then stop.

Now take your shoes off, let your feet rest on the floor and allow yourself to feel, not the floor but the feeling in your feet and see if you can find similar sensations in your feet to the ones you did with your hands.

You are focusing your attention on your feet. You are now actually fully aware of your feet, possibly for a number of us, for the first time ever…

Now move the focus of your attention, body part by body part, slowly up your body leaving your attention on that body part for a few seconds each time so that you allow yourself to be fully aware of it.

As you move your attention, allow that body part to relax. Allow yourself to feel the tension leave your body. For parts of the body that carry a lot of stress such as the shoulders and neck leave your attention there for long enough to enable it to completely relax.

Move along your body, relaxing as you go: feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs etc. When you get to your neck move the focus of your attention to your head and face then back to your neck and finally your hands.

If you’re doing a body scan alone then it’s now finished but if you’re doing it as an initial technique in your meditation routine you can now move the focus I your attention directly to your breath and continue.

Namaste

That is a body scan.

Four days back from my solo retreat

I thought I would give it a while before I added a new post to see what the effects of the retreat were a few days after returning.

I have felt, and continue to feel really calm. My mind is still and I am very lucid. My thoughts have really subsided and I find that I am able to bring mindfulness into some moments that I previously have found difficult.

I have effectively taken another step on my personal journey with the realisation that I need to practice humility. I have the content that I created while away to work on and I am looking forward to fleshing out the presentation and putting the framework in place for the course.

It is probably worth posting where I am at some point later on this month to see what the residual effects are then.

Namaste

Solo retreat 5th day

Today the mind is very quiet. I find myself bringing myself easily and smoothly into the present moment and lingering here rather blissfully.

I also took a bit of a back seat today on my work. I had to go into town in to pick up some supplies as I had underestimated what I needed. Next time I’ll fix a menu in advance and buy the ingredients.
One of the things I did today was to write down a list of achievements from this week.
I found that being totally alone like this is really brilliant for getting the contents of your brain down onto paper.
I was able to extract all of the details for a number of categories in such a way that I was able to formulate and plan based on the information.
I also did a lot of reading and made copious notes.
I think the most productive area was in intellectually demanding yet creative tasks such as planning a course and constructing a massive presentation.
I also struggled with the residue of urban life for consumer-producers which invariably consists of resentments and anxieties of some sort.

It seems to me, no matter how much time I spend uncovering and working with past resentments and so-on that there are always more. Speaking to other people who are experienced meditators, I’m not alone. It seems that the brain has infinite storage capacity for anything that it can possibly interpret as a threat.

Don’t think that I am particularly neurotic. I know beyond doubt that this sort of emotional burden (karma) is a characteristic of our entire consumer society. The difference with me is that after years of mindfulness and meditation I am both aware of it and can also, thankfully, release it.

My goal is to entirely divest myself of my negative karma one experience at a time. Whether I have enough time left on this planet to achieve this or not is the pivotal question :).

All I can say for sure though is that I am not adding to it!

I’ve started reading a book by Ram Dass called ‘Be Here Now’. One of the reviews on Amazon warned me that the book starts as a bit of a hippy bible encouraging us all to leave the workplace for the poppy fields and at this stage it certainly seems that way but I shall stick with it as some of Ram Dass’ teachings I have found are absolutely spot on.

Regarding what I blogged about yesterday, which is the fact that many mindfulness teachers don’t seem to confront the issue of emotions, there is an excellent quotation by Ram Dass which says “To him who has had the experience no explanation is necessary, to him who has not, none is possible.”

Discussing the journey of the mind with the uninitiated is literally, like speaking a different language. This is where the language of spirituality comes in and where we end up struggling. Science has no concept of things like connection with nature, the joy of life, transcendence and bliss so there aren’t the words. Hence, we all end up sounding like hippies whether we want to or not! :) My daughter says that much of what I say she simply puts in her ‘Dad’s hippy box’ category.

I suspect, that there are some mindfulness teachers that have had this experience and yet keep it to themselves for fear that it will blow their credibility with their academic or healthcare buddies.

Imagine coming into the University or the hospital in the morning to say “I spent several hours bathing in the bliss  resulting from releasing ancient fears.” Probably wouldn’t contribute to their next promotion eh?

So this is the last day and I shall be back in the urban jungle soonish.

I shall report back on how that works out.

Namaste Brother and Sisters! :)

Solo retreat 4th day

And so yesterday, the fourth day, I got down to the nitty-gritty of my retreat.

Most mindfulness teachers seem to either see mindfulness as a ‘spiritual practice’ on the path to Nirvana or as a ‘therapy’ they can add to their portfolio.

I am somewhat different, I came to mindfulness through stress. When I picked up the Power of Now in a bookshop in 2009, I was searching for something to help me deal with my stress.

Two revelations in that book transformed my weak Zen Buddhist meditation practices into a powerful tool that has helped me to transform my mind, and my life. This retreat is evidence that transformation is an ongoing process.

The revelations were simply that I am not my thoughts or my emotions and that the present moment is all there is. This helped me to become aware of my emotions, possibly for the first time, and most definitely for the first time as an observer.

This ability to observe emotions rather than experience them is a key element of mindfulness.

An analogy that I often use is that the mind is like a river. When the current is strong and the river level is high, it stirs up the bottom, becomes murky, creates waves and froth. The bottom of the river is hidden and so crossing it is dangerous.

Mindfulness clears the mind and creates a calm, still silence which enables us to observe and experience our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness can become a safe space, one that, with practice, we can always find. This is the eventual goal of mindfulness meditation, to experience the mind safely, transform our minds and so, transform our lives, though not everybody either can or would want to experience this. One has to ‘be ready’. Nobody quite knows what ‘ready’ actually is, but you’ll know it when you’re there.

In the consumer society, meditating on emotions, thoughts and beliefs consists of becoming aware of our conditioning, questioning it and releasing the limiting beliefs, habits and emotions which unfortunately, is most of it.

From what I have seen, most mindfulness courses and mindfulness teachers don’t actually acknowledge this process. I think that this is largely because they haven’t been there themselves.

It’s not possible to speak about, for instance, the connection with nature, the joy of life and the bliss of releasing deep inner fears unless you have experienced it yourself.

Today, to repeat a commonly used expression, “all sorts of stuff came up”.

Of course, it is all good, but it really was a day spent with various tricky emotions such as resentment and grief.

Over the years I have used a number of techniques for managing this sort of psychological quagmire, but nowadays I just dive in and allow myself to feel it. I can almost invariably identify the cause and so either I allow myself to be aware of it and let it dissolve, or find a practice to resolve it.

My latest personal lesson is humility. And the practice I needed to find was how to practice it!

Here are the Dalai Lama’s teachings on humility:
http://www.dalailama.com/teachings/training-the-mind/verse-2
Recently, I have developed a great deal of respect for the Dalai Lama. I’m not a Buddhist simply because I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I will seek out wisdom wherever it can be found, and for the record, that’s often in the most unlikely places…

For some reason, probably because I simply didn’t understand, I used to think the Dalai Lama’s teachings were a western ‘media friendly’ version of Buddhism, but recently I’ve discovered the power in them. I had thought for instance, that compassion was an outcome, a side effect almost, of having found inner peace. Recently, I discovered compassion is something I need to actively practice. In the same way, I now know that I need to practice humility. I need to review my interactions and decide on who I should be compassionate or humble with, and then go out of my way to do it. 

I think if I can be compassionate to people that are resentful and humble with people that are arrogant, then I will have have found my way and rising to the bait will be a thing of the past.

To practice humility, I have now realised that I need to be mindful of how I have responded in the past and be prepared to defer to people not just when they’re wrong, but ‘especially’ when they are wrong, because after all, what is right and wrong except an idea we think is true that we hold in our heads? So why not just allow them to continue to believe whatever it is they want to believe?

Solo retreat 3rd day

Yesterday I spent more time meditating and my mind was a tad clearer.

Looking after the dogs ‘does’ have an effect and it is twofold. Firstly they tend to come over to play while I’m meditating, of course :), but there is also a sense of responsibility that maintains a link in my mind to their welfare and what thy are up to. It can be quite tenuous but it’s very real.

I spent the day focusing on doing ‘one thing at a time’ and found that I was very productive as a result. There was definitely a period of flow where I cracked through work that would normally take me ages.

The purpose wasn’t productivity, it was doing ‘one thing at a time’. The productivity was a side effect.

Overall invasive thoughts were mild and so I spent much of the day in a good mindful place.

Solo Retreat 2nd day

Yesterday was more of what I call meing and being where the focus of my attention moves between awareness and the inner narrative then back again over and over again.

Today will be a Zen day. My mind is relatively quiet and I’m confident that I can focus on my tasks and achieve my goals by retaining this focus.

Yesterday I cracked an elusive problem that I had been trying to solve, probably for some years now.

The silent stillness, inner and outer, enables a clarity of mind that has become such a rare event in my day-to-day life.

This morning, I am a lot closer to what Tolle refers to as the stillness. Yesterday my awareness opened up and I was able to appreciate nature a lot more.

The place that I am staying is thankfully surrounded by trees, some of which are aspens. They shimmer in the breeze quite magically and are a wonderful thing to focus on when meditating. Apparently aspens were associated with magical powers by the pre-Christian civilisations in Europe and I can quite understand why as the shimmering and rustling sound creates a quite wonderful experience.

This morning my mental experience is less of meing and being and more of mental stillness punctuated by the occasional thought.

Solo Retreat – first day

It seems that my first day on solo retreat is always one where my mind is very busy.
Each morning on retreat I get up, feed the dogs and take them for a walk. When I get back, this is the quietest time for me. Yesterday when I got back I sat to meditate and really struggled as the thoughts were intervening and my mind felt clouded.
Today by comparison, my mind is as clear as a mountain stream.
I brought some ting sha bells with me and I just sounded them three times. Sounds wonderful. It is such a good way to connect to the present moment.
It may sound absurd, but this is working retreat. By work, I mean those creative and innovative things that everybody needs to do, and yet in our crazy lives, there is never the time to do them.
Much of the work that I have to do is related to mindfulness in some way. Despite my mind being relatively busy yesterday, I was able to achieve quite a lot. I have high hopes for the productive output of this week.
I meditated a number of times over the day yesterday. When I had cleared my mind, I did notice a certain amount of emotional undercurrent.
I’m certain during the day today I will be able to work on these emotions and discover what message my subconscious has for me. :)

My Solo Retreat starts tomorrow!

I’m going to be staying alone in the Sussex countryside for seven days but I will have access to my iPhone which I shall limit to an hour per day online in the evenings. This means data will be off until the evening and the area has very poor reception so it’s also largely a digital detox with no mobile contact too. If I feel so moved, I may go completely offline, it remains to be seen.

The venue is a friends farm style house. The neighbours are hundreds of yards away. It’s a ten minute walk to the quiet village that doesn’t have a shop.

The road leads nowhere and there’s a car every 30 minutes or so. There are some lovely walks that I shall do directly from the house.

I will need to visit town once in the week to replenish my supplies. As I’m here from  the 15th to the 22nd, I will make that visit on the 19th so I shall have three full solitary days to start. This is because the last time I did something similar, my mind was unusually busy for the first two days and quieted down on the third so a visit to town will not intervene in this initial quieting process.

I am not technically totally alone as I shall be looking after two dogs but that won’t trigger many, or any, streams of thought above what would normally happen based on my last similar retreat of three days.

I am hoping to write a blog article daily to report on the experience and anything that I discover in the process.

Watch this space for further reports!

mirror meditation

Of the two kinds of meditation, focused attention and open monitoring, mindfulness meditation is normally focused attention and usually focus on the breath.

The other kind of meditation, open monitoring takes a bit of getting used to if you have only ever done focused attention. Here is a simple open monitoring meditation called the mirror meditation.

Sit comfortably with your back straight and focus on the breath for a while to help still the mind.

Once you are calm open your eyes and look down at the floor in front of you.

Allow yourself to be as aware as possible of  whatever you can see from the very corners of your eyes.

Don’t return to the breath but allow yourself to take in what you can see with your peripheral vision.

This may feel a bit strange for a while but it adds some variety to your practice and exercises your awareness and your mind.

That’s it, the mirror meditation.

Namaste…

My pick of the best TED lectures

Elizabeth Loftus explains how we reconstruct our memories

Jill Bolte-Taylor questions her, and your, realities with her inspiring experience of a stroke

Father David Stiendl-Rast explains his global movement for gratitude and happiness

Actress Thandie Newton exposes the fragility of her, and our, personas

If Hannah Brencher’s talk on love letters doesn’t bring a lump to your throat, you’re not human

What Leadership really means from Simon Sinek

Why you need to be true to yourself from Caroline Casey

How everybody benefits when everybody benefits by Richard Wilkinson

How the formula for happiness is broken and how we can fix it by Shawn Achor

12 simple quick Mindfulness techniques – Micromeditation

Meditation - Grim Santo@flickr_1440x960

This is a list of articles that I have written to date that will help you to find mindfulness in your daily life and that all take anything from a second to a few minutes.

Read through them and find the ones that work for you.

Feel free to comment below

Namaste

nature as a portal to mindfulness

There was a time when I could only meditate in nature.

It was the second time around for me for meditation and I was absolutely struggling to clear my mind of thoughts.

I would travel to the countryside during the weekend and find a quiet place after walking for about half an hour, usually in a forest somewhere. I would sit down with my back to a tree and actually be able to focus on my breathing without thoughts intervening.
Usually in these meditation sessions I would be able to maintain mindfulness for about half an hour or so. I was aware of the sounds of the forest, the sound and movement of the creatures in it, the sound of falling leaves and the wind in the trees.

I was so stressed that I struggled to be free of my inner dialogue without doing all of this to get away from it. Since then I have always looked at nature as a way of finding my way back to mindfulness.

Interestingly, the next place I was able to meditate was in a busy coffee shop. :)

Since then I have always used nature as what Eckhart Tolle calls “a portal into the present moment”. Any nature will do. Even just a plant in a busy office or a glimpse of a cloud or the sky through the window.

my gift to you – the calm gift of happiness

What is happiness?

This question is not a simple as it first seems. There is no definition of happiness and it is entirely subjective. To try to pin it down, we first have to be clear what happiness is not:

Happiness is not comfort and pleasure. Comfort and pleasure are temporary antidotes to being unhappy. If you dedicate your life to the pursuit of comfort and pleasure you may be able to experience comfort and pleasure regularly but you can still be really unhappy.

Happiness is not inner peace, though one needs inner peace to be happy. Inner peace is a lack of internal (and subsequently external) conflict.

Love and compassion is not happiness, though I believe they are essential ingredients of happiness.

Happiness is not a thing. It’s the absence of a thing

The thing that happiness is the absence of, is suffering. I’m talking here about self-imposed suffering such as: resentment, anger, fear, anxiety, impatience and the resulting stress. These are self-imposed because they are the result of how we think and feel about our life experiences, and are not the experiences themselves. It is the reaction to our life experiences that causes us to suffer, not the experiences themselves.

Rather than try to define happiness, I listed those things that were the prerequisites to happiness. Those things that if one did not have them then one could not be happy. Once I had written them down, I discovered that I could rearrange the words into a mnemonic which is ‘CALM GIFT’. This couldn’t have been more appropriate so now we have it:

The CALM GIFT of happiness

 

Compassion
When you finally realise, deeply and intuitively, that everyone you meet is a reflection of yourself and part of the one life that we all share. When you realise that everyone is is a child of their conditioning and experience in the same way that you are. When you realise that you have all the defects that they do but only differing in degree, then, and only then, you can be compassionate both to them, and to yourself.

Acceptance
Acceptance is emotional connection. It is allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel in the present moment, good or bad. The present moment is overwhelmingly good but the catch is that to feel the good, you’ll also have to feel the bad.

Love
This isn’t the sloshy, sentimental and fickle romantic love which has elements of attraction and lust liberally mixed in.
This love is the all-encompassing and unconditional love that the bible sometimes refers to as charity and which is an open handed acceptance and giving to all living things.

Mindfulness
Mindfulness is being in the present moment. If you are in the past you will regret, if you are in the future you will worry. While you can’t return to the present moment, you can’t be happy.

Gratitude
Gratitude is the supreme balancer of negative emotions. As you are a bundle of conditioning, some of it will be negative so you need to balance it out to teach your brain that life isn’t all bad. Learning to be grateful will give you that balance.

Inner Peace
You can only develop inner peace by being aware of inner conflict. When it arises, there is no need to do anything, acknowledge the conflict and it will dissolve in time.

Forgiveness
If you can’t forgive you’ll resent. How can you be happy if you’re feeling resentful?

Truth
The measure of truth, honesty and integrity is when: what you say, what you do, what you think, how you feel and what you experience are entirely consistent. When that happens and when there is no cognitive dissonance, you have found truth.

This, is my recipe for happiness.

Namaste

trying too hard

Mindfulness meditation practice is not a competition, with yourself or anyone else, to try to spend as long as possible with no thought.

The benefit of the practice of mindfulness meditation is the process of bringing your focus back from your compulsive background thoughts so each time that you do that you progress in your mindfulness practice.

Experienced meditators with any honesty admit their thoughts intervene. Experiencing compulsive thought and refocusing ‘is’ the practice so while that happens you’re doing fine.

An example I use is learning to ride a bike. It’s the falling off that actually teaches you how to ride. With mindfulness meditation it’s the practice of continually releasing your thoughts that enables you to be mindful in everyday life.

Namaste…

one second mindfulness

There is no moment in life, no matter how harrowing it is, where we cannot be mindful.

In fact, for the most critical life-and-death moments, our minds block thought. Our body goes into emergency mindfulness mode. We ‘know’ what to do instinctively and do it without thought.

Try the one second mindfulness exercise.

Simply breathe in mindfully. Move your attention to your breath from whatever is happening.

The key is just to focus on the breath while we are breathing in. This momentarily clears our minds of whatever we are hooked into at that moment. Even if we are concentrating on something that needs focus, it is good to have a brief energising pause.

This single second of mindfulness can return us to what we were doing with a renewed energy and a new perspective. We have a level of presence and present moment awareness that we didn’t have previously.

a micro body scan you can do anywhere

When you practice the body scan in daily meditation, start at the feet, slowly progress up to the crown of the head and fingers, moving from one body part to the next relaxing as you go, then return the focus of your awareness slowly back down the body to your feet.

Once you have practiced this enough, speed it up so your awareness and relaxation whizzes from your feet to your crown and fingertips and back.
This can be done with a breath in and out:
Breathing in moves the relaxation scan from the feet to the crown and fingers. Hold it momentarily then scan back down the body with your relaxing awareness to your feet.

To help, visualise an old photocopier where the light moved from one side of the photocopier to the other then back again.

Then, when you’re in your office or on your morning commute, or anywhere where you can benefit from relaxing you can do the micro body scan to release the tension from your body and return to the present moment.

Namaste

silencing the inner iPod

Have you ever had a piece of music going round and round in your head that you just can’t get rid of?

Irritatingly it can be the jingle from an advertisement or something that was playing in a cafe or shop. I don’t know about you but sometimes with me, it is a piece of music I don’t like!

It could be something that you heard a few days back or even a tune triggered by a few words that you associated with the lyrics and then started the internal band/singer/orchestra playing.

A while back, in order to try to humour her old Dad, my daughter tried mindfulness meditation and told me that the music in her head was one of the things that was stopping her from focusing on her breath. She named this her “inner iPod” and asked me how she could stop it!

Without realising it I had been able to stop my inner iPod for quite a while, so the next time I experienced it, I was aware of how that happened.

What I do is to listen to ‘where’ it was coming from. In the same way that can be aware of the location of the source of a sound in physical space, I allowed myself to be aware of the physical location of the source of the sound of my inner iPod. When I do this, for me, it stops.

I hope it helps you.

Mindfulness meditation is difficult. NOT.

If it’s difficult, you’re doing it wrong.

Our culture tells us that if something isn’t difficult it’s not worth doing. We associate achievement and ‘success’ with overcoming challenges, so we only tend to believe that we can ‘succeed’ in ‘achieving’ something if we need an effort of will to do so.

This is just plain wrong, doesn’t apply to cultivating mindfulness and largely doesn’t apply to anything else related to the mind.

When we first discover that our wandering mind seemingly sabotages us as we try to be clear of our thoughts, our cultural conditioning kicks in and we ‘try harder’. This is the worst thing we can do.

To understand why let’s do a little test:
Don’t think of Pink Elephants.
Close your eyes for ten seconds and in that time, don’t think of Pink Elephants.
You thought of Pink Elephants didn’t you? It was impossible not to.
In fact, the more important it is that you don’t think of Pink Elephants, such as if your life depended on it, the more likely you would be to think of Pink Elephants! This is because in the hunter-gatherer existence for which our brains have genetically evolved, there was never a reason not to think of anything so we never developed that facility.

What we need to do instead of ‘trying harder’ is to use another thing that is in short supply in our culture and that is patience.

If we are patient, we can relax. Mindfulness cannot have a schedule applied to it. We have been conditioned to think, so finding a space without thought is a long process. It comes in time.

What we are doing when we meditate on our breath is training our minds to release our unhelpful thought processes and in time also our unhelpful emotions.

In order to become mindful, we first need to be distracted. That is the purpose of mindfulness meditation. It is a process of learning. It is our purpose to be distracted, to become aware of that distraction and return our focus to our breath which is somewhere we always have at hand and that has no emotional content.

Mindfulness meditation is sharpening the tool. Using it is in our daily life.

Mala beads for everyday mindfulness

I was recently in Watkins Books. While I was there I noticed some mala beads. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_prayer_beads

These are normally used when reciting a mantra but I decided to try them out as a way of counting my breaths when doing the breathing meditation.

It works out really well as they act as both an anchor to the present moment (see my blog article here) and as a way of counting breaths.

I hope this helps your mindfulness practice.

Namaste

some effective minimizing strategies

  • When you go on leave, take old clothes and donate them to charity at the destination. This gives you room for gifts in your baggage allowance on the way back or just the benefit of travelling light.
  • Pull a drawer out and only put back what you absolutely need. Donate or dispose of the rest.
  • Go through a cupboard and dispose of or donate anything that you haven’t needed for a year.
  • If you struggle with letting go of things that you perceive of as having financial value, donate them to charity.
  • Try disposing of or donating your least interesting half of any collections you have e.g. books, CDs, DVDs etc.
  • Incrementally replace your physical books with the electronic format books that you really need. Donate the physical books.
  • Bite the bullet and dispose of or donate your older clothes one at a time. (saves on ironing!)
  • Minimize and start with whatever you have the most of.

 

minimizing our stuff

“What we own ends up owning us”
~ Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

To understand the benefits of minimizing your belongings imagine two scenes:

A minimalist Japanese household with a sense of transcendental calm. The few possessions immaculately placed like this.

A hoarder’s room.

These are obviously two extremes but if owning possessions is on a scale, imagine how much simpler life can be if we move towards the simple end?

 

meditating on gratitude or appreciation

Gratitude and appreciation are things that seem to not be taught out of a religious context.

This is a shame as gratitude is a valuable counterweight to all of the negative context of modern life.

Modern life can easily become one of conflict, both internal and external. Gratitude is an acceptance of the beneficial things in life and helps us to realise that accepting life *as it is*, is as much about accepting the good things as the bad.

There are a number of gratitude meditations. The most commonly known are Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness), Buddhist meditations.

I have a meditation that I use, and which my students really enjoy.
Interestingly for a meditation, you may need to start with a few minutes of thought.

Gratitude meditation

Think of someone or something for which you can feel grateful for or appreciate strongly.

Allow yourself to feel the feeling, the sensation, that comes with those thoughts of gratitude or appreciation.

Bring to mind an image of your family and friends.
Allow yourself to feel that same gratitude when you think of them.

Bring to mind your community, the people that you see every day yet don’t know their names: shopkeepers, commuters, colleagues, people working in service industries.
Allow yourself to feel that same gratitude when you think of them.

Bring to mind your country and all the people in it.
Allow yourself to feel that same gratitude when you think of them.

Bring to mind all of the seven billion people in the world going about their daily lives, imagine all of the creatures, plants and animals that we share the world with, all part of one extended family spinning on a globe through space around the sun.
Allow yourself to feel that same gratitude when you think of them.

Hold that thought…

the three second rule for mindfulness

You can find a number of three second rules if you search for them on the internet.

This one is about staying mindful.

As we progress in our mindfulness training, we become mindfully aware of our conditioned responses earlier and earlier in our experiences.

An example is:

Before mindfulness

I get onto the train for my commute and someone pushes in front of me to take the only seat left on the carriage. I get angry and stand glowering all the way to my destination resenting him and thinking to myself how rude people are. I am a good person living in a world full of rude and selfish people!

While learning mindfulness

I get onto the train for my commute and someone pushes in front of me to take the only seat left on the carriage. I get angry and stand glowering most of the way to my destination resenting him and thinking to myself how rude people are. I am a good person living in a world full of rude and selfish people. But then I realise that the way I feel is because of my conditioning and that he behaved the way he did because of his and maybe the world isn’t so bad after all…

When mindful

I get onto the train for my commute and someone pushes in front of me to take the only seat left on the carriage.
I smile realising that the feelings I can detect just below the surface of my experience are my ancient conditioning at work. I feel compassion for the rude guy because he so desperately needs a perceived victory to get through his day.

The three second rule

While learning mindfulness, the three second rule comes in handy

What we do is this:

Whenever, and that is *whenever* we experience a negative emotion:

  • take in a breath (second one)
  • hold it for a moment (second two)
  • breathe out (second three)
  • allow yourself to be aware of how you feel

You will find that you have punctuated your flow of emotion and train of thoughts, stopping you from possibly descending into a negative feedback loop of thoughts and emotions.

Try it, let me know how it goes?

mindfulness and insomnia

Having difficulty sleeping is a common thing in our society. Even if you sleep well most of the time, what happens when you need to get up at 4AM to get an early flight or train?

What happens to most of us is that we don’t sleep well enough. There is an old wive’s tale that to help us sleep we should count sheep. This is sage advice. What that does is to take our mind off of the desire to sleep which is what actually keep us up. Mindfulness meditation worked better for me than counting sheep did!

Just do a simple mindful breathing meditation or a counting breaths meditation and see how it goes.

If you’d like to know a bit more about mindfulness and sleep take a look at this study: How mindfulness changed my sleep: focus groups with chronic insomnia patients which was published in the Official journal of the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research and was authored by A. Hubbling et.al of the College of Pharmacy & School of Nursing, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

 

the bubble meditation

Here is a way to make your commute a bit more fun.

Close your eyes.
Focus on your breath for a few breaths.
Imagine that you are at a desert island.
You are sitting at the bottom of a beautiful blue lagoon.
You are able to breathe normally.
The surface is six feet above you.
The light from the ripples on the surface of the lagoon is dappling the sandy floor.
Around you are colourful tropical fish and coral outcrops.
Whenever a thought arises, breathe out the thought.
Breathe it out as bubbles and watch them rising slowly, wriggling to the surface where they pop and dissolve.

Repeat.

Enjoy…

making use of the commute

Do you hate queuing or waiting? Do you get impatient or maybe even angry?

Queuing and waiting are opportunities for mindfulness practice and in time you may even look forward to them.

When you’re in a queue you’re simply stuck there. Learn to accept it and rather than letting compulsive thought take over, use the opportunity to meditate for a few minutes. Even a few calm breaths in a short queue or delay will be of benefit.

This is a perfect example of how we can release our old conditioned emotional and mental responses and replace them with mindfulness and presence.

We need to take any opportunity we can to find the stillness and calm that underlies the busy content of our lives.

Eventually, as we become more mindful, we will find that boredom, frustration and impatience will dissolve. Queues and delays are some of the most frustrating kinds of experiences that can cause us impatience. By using them for mindfulness practice, we find that over time we become more mindful and less impatient in *all* of our experiences.

In that way, queues and delays will end up benefiting us. You may even discover that you become grateful for the opportunity to stop in a queue because you’ll then have an opportunity to be calm and mindful for a while.

Happy queueing!

The Power of Now

The Power of Now is the book by by Eckhart Tolle that made a great difference to me for my meditation practice.

When I first read it in 2009, I experienced a paradigm shift as I realised two simple previously overlooked concepts:

  • For each of us, our present moment is all there is
  • I am not my thoughts

The book also contains guidance on mindfulness meditation and a number of concepts that result from these core concepts.

These simple realisations sent me on a journey of self-inquiry that has subsequently transformed my experience and my life.

Not everyone is ready for the concepts contained within The Power of Now but either way it is a classic and well worth the read.

My recent short solo retreat and digital detox

I recently went on a bit of a solo retreat and digital detox in the Sussex countryside. One of this blog’s readers asked me to write an article on it so here it is.

I have spent quite a lot of time alone in the past although it has never been with such a clear intention of spending time meditating.

I expected, for some reason, to be able to meditate quite clearly and calmly from day one. Almost the opposite happened. My compulsive trains of thought seemed to go into overtime for the first two days. I wasn’t quite alone as there was a dog with me and of course, I found myself talking to the dog. This may seem daft to people that have not spent time alone with pets but for the rest of us it seems perfectly normal. It’s when they start talking back that it starts to become a problem.

I don’t think that the quality of the mental chatter was anything different to how it is normally. I think that the silence of the environment might just seem to make it appear more incessant and noisier.

It is interesting that it took me a couple of days to get to clarity of mind that I wanted. I didn’t spend all day alone. Every morning and evening I took the dog for a walk and in the process met some of the locals though my longest conversation all the time that I was alone there, was about 15 or 20 minutes chatting to a local farmer.

On the third day I achieved, at around mid-morning, the level of clarity of mind that I had hoped I would have from the start. This was an interesting and quite revelatory feeling of clarity. I found I was actually being extremely productive. I had brought some work with me, quite creative work, and rather hoped I would be able to complete it on my retreat. I completed what I expected to do. I also did a lot of reading. I read “The feeling of what happens” by Antonio Damasio. This was the second time that I had read it, but the quality of the information that I extracted this time was more useful and insightful.

From that point on, I felt very calm until the end of the retreat. I can understand why authors hide away alone to write.

As to my meditation experience, I don’t think I actually meditated for much longer than I do on a normal day, but the feeling of mindfulness most definitely extended throughout the entire day. I suppose that that’s simply because its other people that are likely to collapse a mindful state more than anything else and so with an absence of people I was able to stay mindful. In a way, I can see why Indian swamis go and sit in a cave for many years, though I have no intention of trying it myself!

I would say though that every meditation session after the first couple of days was successful. I wouldn’t say that my meditations were deeper, but there was no restlessness of any kind and my mind was relatively silent.

I will most definitely do some more solo retreats whenever possible. As to the digital detox, it’s a great way of resetting for the crazy day-to-day existence and reminds you that actually we don’t really need to be plugged in all the time.

mindful walking

Any activity for which you don’t need full concentration, you can use as an opportunity to be mindful.

Walking is a perfect example. Without the intervention of distracting thoughts or emotions, a walk opens up. We can become aware of more of our surroundings as our brain relaxes the filters that it uses to limit our sensory perceptions because it is busy endlessly churning the problems of the day.

No problems means we have a richer experience.

We observe more, we feel more, we see more, colours are brighter, we smell and see things we would not normally notice. We experience our surroundings in a clearer manner than when we are preoccupied with our inner dialog.

This is what is known as transcendence. It isn’t a mystic state of mind or trance, it is how our ancestors would have experienced their natural environment as they travelled through it open to all and any sensory perception.

This is our natural state. Enjoy it…

anchoring to the present moment

As we go through our day-to-day life, we find it very difficult to find a time and place to stop and be mindful, even if only for a few moments.

Mindfulness is being in the present moment. So anything that brings us back to the present moment long enough to become aware that we could/should/can be mindful for even a moment or two is helpful to our daily practice.

An example of this could be, for instance, a stone you keep in your pocket or a strategically placed plant.

We call these things an anchor because it anchors us in the present moment.

When you feel or see the anchor it serves as a present moment reminder.

visualisation meditation

I personally don’t do many visualisation meditations when I am meditating on my own.

I often do visualisations when I am taking a group session simply because it is fun and my students enjoy it.

The gratitude bubble meditation

Focus your attention on your breath
Move the focus of your attention to the bottom of your lungs, let yourself be aware of your breath filling the bottom of your lungs
Bring your attention to a point 3 inches behind your navel – this is called your inner body
Be aware of a tiny dim point of light there, similar to the light of a distant star
Watch it grow to become like a bright star
Be aware of it growing to the size of a tennis ball, then a beach ball, then growing to envelop your entire body so you are sitting in a bubble of starlight
Think of something or someone that you can feel grateful for or appreciative of
Let that feeling fill the bubble
Let the bubble of gratitude grow to the size of the room, then to the size of your town and eventually the entire planet
Be aware that you can extend your gratitude and appreciation to all of the creatures and plants on this planet, spinning through space, one big extended family

Hold that thought then, slowly, allow the ball to shrink back to the size of a tiny pinpoint of light and finally wink out

:)

Namaste…

how do we silence our thoughts?

We don’t.

What we do is to allow ourselves to be aware of our thoughts and we will then find that they subside and dissolve of their own accord. An example is meditating on our breath. We are allowing our thoughts to intervene. The practice is returning to the breath, not staying with no thought.

In my experience we can *never* make ourselves think or not think anything. There is a famous experiment where we can try not to think of Pink Elephants. You can try it if you want now. The harder you try, the more invasive the thoughts of Pink Elephants become.

Trying to force ourselves to think, or to not think, in a particular way can be a destructive process.

Observing our thoughts, listening to them in effect, silences them because the source of our awareness becomes the silent watcher of our thoughts and not the thoughts themselves.

When that happens, when focus on our inner dialogue is no longer the source of our awareness, we can say that we are mindful for that time.

where to meditate

In time, ideally, we ‘should’ be able to meditate anywhere and if we are patient then it will come.

But if you do get stuck and can’t still your mind then a change of scenery, especially in a quiet natural spot, might help you to calm your mind enough to benefit from your meditation.

Then, once you have made some progress, you can try meditating in your home again.

correct posture

Pretty much all expert meditators take the time to mention correct posture.

The rules seem to be pretty universal:

  • wear loose clothing for comfort
  • back straight – stops us from getting a bad back
  • head straight – helps to keep us aware
  • tongue behind the top teeth – makes us breath from our nostrils
  • hands in lap or somewhere comfortable – avoids discomfort distractions
  • there are as many ways of kneeling/sitting as there are meditators, personally I cross my legs though in the East, especially Zen, they tend to sit with their legs tucked under them
  • it seems to be bad form to move around and adjust your posture in formal meditation sessions but I think it’s fine to move around a bit so long as you keep it to a minimum
  • it is okay to sit in a chair but try not to get too comfortable or you might drift off to sleep. :)
  • eyes either open and looking down, to try to avoid distractions, or eyes closed.

why do we focus on the breath?

There are two main categories of meditation according to research: Focused Attention and Open Monitoring.

Mindfulness meditation the way it is normally practiced in the buddhist traditions and their secular western offshoots is Focused Attention meditation, where the practitioner focuses their full attention on some image or recurring event. Some meditators chant, others listen to temple bells, watch prayer flags, view mandalas etc. Most secular mindfulness meditators seem to focus on the breath.

I expect that in terms of the benefits of the meditation itself they are all pretty similar and it seems to me, though I have no experience of it, that it would be easier at first to chant etc. as it would crowd out of your mind the pointless trains of thought.

The big advantages to focusing on the breath however is that: our breath is always with us, it has no emotional content, it can be neither good nor bad it just is and we can practice breathing wherever we are. It is portable and convenient.

I have meditated on candles and I have also done open monitoring meditations such as the mirror meditation of which more in a later post.

 

What is micromeditation?

We live in a crazy, busy, non-stop, plugged-in, online world.

We all know that we need to slow down and so we do things like meditation, yoga, exercise, music and so on, but that is all extra-curricular activity.

It is all in the bookends to our days, or our weeks, but it is in our day-to-day experience that we need to somehow, try to find the time to step out of the madness for just one moment and allow ourselves to recover.
This is what is known in physiology as refractory time.

Refractory time allows us to recover and continue with what we are doing without needing to take a time-out and without accumulating stress.

How can we do this?

This is what micromeditation is all about.

I shall be posting small snippets of advice, experiences and information on how you can find a bit of sanity in your day.

Post One, the next post, will be on mindfulness meditation.

Make sure you check it out.

Seattle Seahawks Offensive Tackle on his mindfulness training

Offensive tackle, Russell Okung: “Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field to practice. It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them, and change them.”

US Marine Sergeant on his Mindfulness Training

Here’s a quote from Sgt. Nathan Hampton – US Marine Corps on the mindfulness meditation sessions that were included in his counter insurgency training prior to deployment in Afghanistan.

“A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time. Why are we sitting around a classroom doing weird meditative stuff? But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit.”

Quoted from Washington Times Article

7 easy practices that will help you build mindfulness into your day

meditation-1024x640

There are a number of useful techniques that will help to bring mindfulness to your daily living. Here are a few of the ones I found, and still find, useful.

1. Mindful eating

It is easy to get in the habit of eating quickly and absent-mindedly which causes us to miss out on taste, smells and texture our food. Eating mindfully is a great way of bringing ourselves into the present moment.

I was in a cafe earlier today and as I looked around while waiting for my meal to be served, I noticed that everyone was either chatting, reading or viewing their mobiles while they ate. When I was served, instead of distracting myself, I ate slowly and tasted every bite. It was delicious. Try to eat alone yourself at least once per day and when you do focus on the taste and texture of the food. It adds another dimension to life.

2. Mindful commuting

Over the years, commuters have slightly changed their habits from all being buried in a newspaper, to being glued to mobile phones or tablets. Here is another situation where, if you look around, you will find yourself being the only person not focused on the communal activity. This “dead time” of commuting you can use to your benefit by focusing on your breath and experiencing the journey.

3. Mindful queuing

There was a time when I dreaded queuing. I found it stressful. I was one of those people that is constantly looking for a faster moving queue to which I would swap if I thought that I could be served faster. The ultimate frustration was when after swapping queues, I found myself behind somebody with a complex customer service issue requiring the attendance of the supervisor and much discussion. I would watch despairingly as my original queue moved forward and the people that were standing behind me left the premises!
For a while, queues became an opportunity for spiritual practice where I could take a few moments to meditate and learn to deal with the cruel unfairness of a slow queue with a sense of equanimity. Since then,  as my patience has grown, queues have progressed to become not in the least bit remarkable.

4. Look out of the window

It is interesting how, when we are busy, our confinement in a room becomes almost absolute. We seem to forget that we are part of the world outside. Just looking out of the window for a few moments can help us to return to the present moment for a while. This works particularly well if there is some nature outside such as: trees, plants, flowers or birds.

5. Present moment anchors

For a while, when I was practicing very hard to bring mindfulness into my everyday life I used what is called an anchor. In my case, these were small stones that I would put in my pocket. As they are out of place they tend to cause our chain of thoughts to pause and enable us to become mindful at that moment. Any object can be used for this provided that it is something that is in someway unusual and that will cause a momentary pause in the train of thought enabling mindfulness.

6. Mindful walking

To initially practice mindful walking, it is best to get away for a solitary walk. Meditating or praying while walking is an ancient practice characterized by pilgrimage. Focus on your feet, the feeling of your feet on the floor and your breath entering and leaving your body. Once you have spent some time doing this on a few occasions, you’ll find that as you walk around in daily life the memory of mindful walking will prompt you so you can make it a part of your daily practice,

7. Take your breaks

Whatever it is you’re doing, you can retain your focus better and be more productive if you have some breaks. Often, we will use our breaks to chat to friends, colleagues or family but if we take some of our free time and use it for mindfulness meditation then we will have found a useful way to introduce mindfulness into our daily lives.

Ego – Eckhart Tolle

The particular egoic patterns that you react to most strongly in others and misperceive as their identity tend to be the same patterns that are also in you, but that you are unable or unwilling to detect within yourself. In that sense, you have much to learn from your enemies. What is it in them that you find the most upsetting, most disturbing? Their selfishness? Their greed? Their need for power and control? Their insincerity, dishonesty, propensity to violence, or whatever it might be? Anything that you resent and react strongly to in a other is also in you. But it is no more than a form of ego, and as such, it is completely impersonal. It has nothing to do with who that person is, nor has it to do with who you are. Only if you mistake it for who you are can observing it within you be threatening to your sense of self.

~ Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth)
photo – JSmith@flickr.com

The tao that can be told is not the eternal tao…

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal name.

That which cannot be named
is the source of all reality.

Naming is the root of all form.

Caught in desire,
the Tao remains hidden,
Free from desire,
the Tao is revealed.

Being and form arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness upon darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

 

(My take on Chapter 1. of the Tao te Ching)

The Miracle of Grace

I didn’t know what grace was until just recently.

One reference that enlightened me was from Adyashanti in his brilliant book “The End of your World”.

Adya explains that grace isn’t about having things handed to you on a plate but that there is a thing that he calls “fierce grace”.

Fierce grace is what happens when life slaps you down for being inauthentic. Whenever we delude ourselves about anything, we create pain for ourselves. That pain is designed to force us to realise our delusions. When we realise them we can then allow ourselves to become authentic again. I can personally testify that this is absolutely a characteristic of life. There is nowhere to hide from reality. However we try to avoid it, through cosseting ourselves with luxuries or traveling or any other “lifestyle experience” the consequences of our refusal to accept life exactly as it is will cause us pain, sooner or later.

The other source of an understanding of grace came from a brilliant TED lecture by Father David Steindl-Rast which you can  view here.

it is actually a talk on gratefulness but during it Father David explains that grace is inherent in every moment in our lives. The miracle of grace comes because each moment is an opportunity. An opportunity to experience the outcome of our choices (see fierce grace above) and if we make the wrong choice, we get another moment and the opportunity to make another choice.

Can you see how all of this works to simply make us more aware of the present moment and enable us to become enlightened?

That, is the miracle of grace.

Lao Tzu – Acceptance

Stop  thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must  you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!
Other people are excited, as though they are at a parade
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless,
like  an infant before it can smile.
Other  people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing,
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I  am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
Other  people are bright;
I alone am dark,
Other  people are sharp;
I alone am dull.
Other  people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I  drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.
I am different to other people,
I drink from the great mother’s breasts.

Why nobody starves in Delhi

Salaam Balak trust are a charity that provides support to street kids in Indian cities; Mumbai and Delhi.
2013 is their 25th anniversary.

When I visited Delhi earlier this year I booked myself in to do a Salaam Balak city walk which was a fantastic eye opener. The guides on the walks are ex-street kids that work for the Salaam Balak trust. On the day that I did the walk in May it was 40 degrees. Our guide was Iqbal who was 21 and was rescued by the Salaam Balak trust when he found himself lost and alone at Delhi station at the age of six. He walked us through the streets of Paharganj a rabbit warren of grimy alleyways opposite Delhi Raliway Station, home to many of the street kids and also to the Salaam Balak Trust’s main Delhi refuge.

One thing that visitors to India find difficult to cope with is begging street kids. On the one hand, we feel charitable and compassionate but on the other hand we hear all sorts of stories about how any money that we give goes into the hands of Fagin-like characters who use the street kids to harvest money from wealthy tourists.

One of the things that Iqbal explained to us, which was a real surprise, is that street kids in India spend over 90% of the money they get on entertainment and drugs. Drugs are usually glue and entertainment is usually video games which they pay for a couple of rupees a time. They earn their money either begging, stealing or working as waste -pickers salvaging garbage and selling it for a few rupees per kilo to businesses that supply the recycling industry.

 

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Iqbal explained that one of the reasons that the street kids were able to spend such a high proportion of their earnings on drugs and entertainment was because of charitable activities in Delhi where the poorest people are fed. He specifically referred to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple. This is the largest Sikh temple in Delhi and is home to an awesome continuous dedicated act of charity. They have a huge dining hall and kitchens where they run a massive operation providing food for the poorest people in Delhi. I visited the temple and was amazed at the operation. Some of the people working there are employees but the rest are volunteers. Sitting in the huge kitchen were Sikhs from all walks of life in Delhi. Business owners, politicians and ordinary folks all feeding 5,000 people per sitting.

I was guided through the kitchens to see the industrial operation in progress. There was an industrial chapati maker churning out bread on a conveyor belt. There were two massive cauldrons being stirred with what must have been hundreds of gallons of curry. Others helped prepare the air conditioned hall, utensils and plates. I shudder to think of the washing up!

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Happiness…

  • It isn’t about what you have it’s about what you give up
  • It isn’t about what you do it’s about how you experience it
  • It isn’t about where you are it’s about how aware you are when you’re there
  • It isn’t about how you feel it’s about how open you are to feeling
  • It isn’t about who you are with it’s about how you relate to them

Happiness is what is left once we have discarded all of the conditioning that we have learned that stops us from being happy

 

Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness – teaching an old dog new tricks

There has been much research by neuroscientists into how our brains respond to events and how our minds and brains operate together. The human brain is the most sophisticated instrument that we have encountered in our exploration of the universe.

Some interesting statistics from the University of Washington are:

  • At birth, there are 100 billion neurons in the brain (Naegele & Lombroso, 2001). Each neuron communicates with the other neurons through synapses. Each synapse acts at a very simplistic level like a switch that processes electrical and chemical signals.
  • The brain develops, from about 6 to 24 weeks post-conception, at a spectacular rate of 4000 neurons per second (Brown, Keynes, & Lumsden, 2001).
  • Each neuron can have between 1,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections.
  • There are 0.15 quadrillion (a thousand million million) synapses in the brain.
  • The potential number of different combinations of connections between all of the neurons in the brain and all of the synapses is equivalent to the total number of all of the fundamental particles in the universe which is a very big number…

Neuroplasticity
As we learn, our brain adapts to how it is used. New connections between neurons grow and recent research has identified that new neurons grow too. This process is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasiticity is the malleability of the brain, observable as changes in neuronal structure and connectivity.

The experiments on neuroplasticity most associated with learning in humans come from studies of London taxi drivers, who have been shown in a number of studies to have larger posterior hippocampi and smaller anterior hippocampi than control subjects (Maguire et al., 2000; Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006; Woollett & Maguire, 2009). Licensed London Taxi Drivers must memorise every street and place of interest within a six mile radius of Charing Cross in central London in order to pass the famous “knowledge” test. This is an intensive process with gruelling verbal tests that requires focused learning for up to five years.

The brain changes as we learn
The size of the posterior hippocampus in these experiments was found to be direclty correlated with the number of years of driving taxis. A direct correlation was also found with the proficiency of a taxi driver in finding London land-marks in a Virtual Reality environment set up to test them.
What this tells us is that we learn as we grow and that learning literally becomes part of us as our brain changes to accommodate that new information.

Neuroscientists have a famous phrase to describe this which is that “neurons that fire together wire together”.

Patience
We need to be aware that our conditioning becomes part of us, literally, and it is a long process of physical and mental change to un-learn any behaviours that are unhelpful. It can be frustrating when old behaviours surface continually as we try to change but we need to be aware that we “have become our conditioning” and so we need to be patient when we try to change it.

Excellent further reading on this subject can be had from A.S. Lillard, A. Erisir / Developmental Review 31 (2011) 207–239 (Old dogs can learn new tricks) which I downloaded from academia.edu.

A First Step to Mindfulness

If you’re looking for a way to be mindful and it all seems like gobbledygook but you’re pretty convinced of the benefits and you know intuitively that there’s something to it, but you can’t really get on with this breathing meditation stuff and all the while your days are stretching out into an infinity of distress then…

Whenever you either have a quiet moment or when it all becomes a bit too much for you just take the day one minute at a time.

Think for a second about where you are and what you will be doing for the next minute because no matter how hard life is, we can all cope with a minute of it.

Good Luck!

Definition of the Day: Impact Bias

How we view the future (wrongly)

Impact Bias is a description of how we view future events. We feel that we will be happier or more distressed than we actually feel and, just like many other human behaviours, we don’t learn from this.

In this link, Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert presents his findings on how our expectations of future events tend to the extreme.

We all know that the feel-good factor of new gadgets and holidays wears off pretty quickly. We can also see, with the benefit of hindsight, that things were maybe not as bad as we thought they would be looking forward. We realise that our predictions of how we will feel about good or bad events is skewed, but we can see that the extent to which we are wrong is far greater than we think thanks to Daniel’s research.

 

The Fisherman’s Parable

Morro Bay Sunset - Harbor ViewAn American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied “only a little while”. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, Señor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and I can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution.

You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But Señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, Señor?”

The American laughed and said “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, Señor? Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

The playground of our dreams and the stuff of nightmares

Sometimes our minds work seemingly as separate entities, often working directly against us.

We can see this clearly when we dream. Our dreams are the playgrounds of our minds. When we dream our mind has total control. It could create any dream universe that it wishes yet it often *chooses* to create one filled with anxiety and confusion.

Our minds extend our emotions into dreams, they replay the emotional tune of the day to an arrangement of their own composition. Our dreams are constructs that reconcile the way we feel with dream experiences that are aligned with our emotions. Our emotions remain as a residue originally created by the thoughts and experiences of the day which then form the foundations for our nightly dream universe.

This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Our minds are given free rein and create their own universe in which our lives or physical integrity, or that of our loved ones are threatened.

There are many nightmares and uncomfortable dreams but often with many common themes: there are falling dreams, being naked in public dreams, running away dreams, losing loved ones dreams, being lost dreams and those horrific nightmares where we wake up just as something dreadful is happening. These are all representations of our emotional undercurrents. Common to these nightmares and dreams are feelings of lack of control, inadequacy and general insecurity.

This is the mind’s contribution to our wellbeing. To imaginatively create fear and anxiety for us and replay it in our sleep, magnifying it through the medium of a nightmare. This is the mind’s purpose, to provide motivation, to construct imaginary scenarios which prompt us into action that preempts disaster. This is the emotional content of the genetic heritage of our prehistoric ancestors, whose lives were continually on the sharp edge of survival, and for whom complacency would mean certain death.

The critical concept that we need to consider then, is that it is the exact same mental processes creating our dreams as constructing the daily worries and concerns in our waking life. The same mental processes with the same motivations, operating in exactly the same way.

Notes on Eckhart Tolle’s seminar in London 22nd October 2010

A bit late I know but I’ve been busy. :)

Subject – Transcendence.

Most peoples consciousness consists of the egoic sense of self consisting of compulsive thought.

Compulsive thought and the egoic mind leads to identification with form and through that identification inevitably comes suffering as all forms are impermanent.
 
All of the great teachers described what Jesus referred to as the “Kingdom of Heaven” which Tolle interprets as the Transcendental Dimension (Kingdom = Dimension and Heaven = Transcendance).

The transcendant dimension is the state of no thought. The ego resists the development of awareness but eventually an individual can attain that state as it is within us all.

Thoughts are the source of identification with forms. The identification is not with the form itself but with the thought of the form. A soccer fan does not identify with the team, he identifies with his concept of the team. An aristocrat does not identify with the bricks in his stately home, but with the concept he has of it.

Hence we become attached to and identify with the abstraction of things rather than the things themselves. 

Wealth and success inhibit the attainment of a transcendental state as the identification with the forms is so strong that the ego binds the contextual sense of self to the forms. Only when there is sufficient suffering, when the form abstractions can dissipate, will we realize that the identification was an artificial creation.  

Tolle used another of Jesus’ teachings “you are the light of the world” from the sermon on the mount to illustrate that the light of awareness exists within us all.

The Buddhist concept of loving kindness is the end result of attaining a transcendant state as we become aware that there is no separation, we are like blocks of ice floating on the top of the sea, formed from water and inevitably melting back into the water. This underlies the realization that we are not separate but fleeting and impermanent life forms effectively a part of the body of water on which they float.

Poem of the day – Impermanence

I met a traveller from an antique land who said:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert.
Near them, on the sand, half sunk,
a shattered visage lies,
whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive,
stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay of that colossal wreck,
boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley 1818