The Examined Life
When I started meditating, I thought it was all about me. I felt stressed, my mind was chaotic, panic was overwhelming my body, I needed something to calm me down. I was highly focused on myself and my problems, and I saw meditation as something that might help me cope. It has helped me cope, but increasingly this has happened not just through allowing me to work more skilfully with my internal experience, but by expanding my capacity to be and stay in relationship with others. Opening up to a wider space of awareness and connection, via the practice of mindfulness, has made it a lot less claustrophobic in here.
This expansion seems to have happened quite organically. First I began to discover that my automatic patterns of reacting to events weren’t just happening in my inner space—the thoughts, emotions and body sensations I was having also impacted on how I operated in the world. When I felt angry with someone, I’d instinctively avoid them, amoeba-like, pulling out of connection and into isolation. In meditation, I began to see this pattern clearly.Read more »
Last month I spent a rich and rewarding week on a training retreat for teachers, run by Bangor University’s dedicated mindfulness centre. Glorious Welsh mountains provided the backdrop for our practice (not hard to find inspiration for embodying stillness, steadiness and strength here), while sharing in the wisdom of so many experienced guides made for a fertile learning environment. I felt a deep sense of commitment in the group to offering, as best we can, skillful spaces for people to experience the magic of mindfulness.
A phrase that struck me during the retreat—and it is one I’ve heard many times as meditation-based approaches have spread across the helping professions —is "a bit of mindfulness." People reading "a bit of mindfulness." Therapists using "a bit of mindfulness." Businesses bringing in "a bit of mindfulness" for their staff. Of course, it’s wonderful that practicing meditation is widely respected these days, rather than an implicit admission of borderline insanity, but there’s something about this phrase, and what it implies, that leaves me uneasy.Read more »
I’ve noticed lately that I often wake up at night with my ankles crossed. That might not seem much of a revelation, but I’m working to pay particular attention to the subtle ways I unconsciously tighten, slump and close off my body from its surroundings. I have a tendency to pull away or wall off from unpleasant events, and this expresses itself physically as well as mentally. I’ve found that I can start to undo this habitual pattern by practicing openness, gentleness and letting go of tension. Such as uncrossing my ankles when I wake up at night...
Our society categorizes conditions like depression and anxiety primarily at a mental level. I used to buy into that, believing that if I could only persuade my thinking mind to behave differently, I would no longer be prey to them. I now look at things rather differently, to the point where I no longer use terms like "mental health problems": words and phrases that emphasise well-being as a "head-based" condition don’t much correspond to my experience. Indeed, by crystallizing them into fixed diagnostic criteria, I suspect that, for me at least, they help make a self-perpetuating story out of temporary, sensory data.Read more »
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been catching up on streaming videos from Creating A Mindful Society, the Mindful.org-sponsored event which took place in New York last month. Two segments stood out for me. The first was Richie Davidson’s brilliant keynote on the neuroscience of meditation—a clear and cogent outline of what happens in our brains as we train in presence and kindness. The second was a discussion of why, twenty years after publication of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal book, Full Catastrophe Living, and with so much evidence pointing towards the benefits, mindfulness practice hasn’t yet become a part of most people’s lives.Read more »
It’s estimated (conservatively) that one in ten children in the United States would qualify for a diagnosis of Attention Hyperactivty Disorder. We live in an age of "continuous partial attention," where the constant pressure to react to a flood of stimuli goes beyond the reasonable capacities of our brains. We know that young, growing brains are especially vulnerable to being shaped by negative experience—a scattered attention can create a brain in disharmony, which may further impede our ability to focus. And a mind that can’t sustain focus is a mind that will find it difficult to learn something new.Read more »