mindfulness

Thoughts from a Mindfulness Approach course participant

It’s not often that you get to hear what Mindfulness is from the perspective of a course participant, so here it is directly from Pam:

Mindfulness is a term many have heard by now. Some may understand it to be the latest fad in naval-gazing, others may see it as the new fix or cure. I've asked friends and family (including those on a spiritual path)what they think mindfulness is, and they said that it's meditation, or another way of mastering our thoughts. We've all got our ideas about it.


At a taster session I went to last autumn, that was run by Anna Zannides, she talked a little about the practice of Mindfulness. We did a sitting meditation and I experienced walking with awareness through all my senses. I left there feeling more alive! Why, how you might ask. I was more aware of myself in the fullness of my environment. It was like stretching out and feeling muscles I didn't know I had.


I was initially drawn to go to the taster session, having searched for a way to stop thinking and acting on automatic - like a mechanical hamster on a wheel. I was looking for a way to stop taking so much of myself and my life for granted.


At the first session of my 6 week course with Anna, she asked: what is an unstable mind? Some answers thrown out might have included;
Someone who's off the wall
A person who is highly strung
An over sensitive person
I don't know what the other participants actually said, because I wasn't really listening. I was too busy figuring out my own reply which I eagerly offered.
"Being easily influenced and swept up with other people's opinions and circumstances," I said. My reply was based on criticisms from my daughters: for not listening to them and not admitting my shortcoming. Of course I had my reasons and justifications over the years, for not listening, (usually too much on my plate, or some variation of that). Nevertheless I took on the guilt.


Anna listened to the group's offerings and said that a busy mind is an unstable mind. There in Anna's answer, was my confirmation: I was definitely in the right place.

"So what's a stable mind?" Anna probed. I pictured myself sitting squarely with legs crossed and eyes closed in the middle of a hurricane; it is said that the centre place is calm and still. I shared my thought-picture with Anna, who responded carefully. Many people have the idea she said, that we must be like Buddha - but we are human. She continued saying that we don't have to remove ourselves from the goings-on around us, or even the ones hurled at us, it's about us learning to calm ourselves in the midst of it.


"Even the Dai Lai Lama has said he can get angry or upset at times." Anna said smiling.
I was wrong, but I felt like I was in a safe space to make a mistake and learn from it. In my first class, I got clear about what is a stable and unstable mind. Learning how to observe what I think and feel, and the way I think and feel - with acceptance of where I am, is all on the path to becoming calm. This seems more do-able than the picture I was holding on to, the one with me sitting in 'the eye of the storm'.


With this distinction made, I knew that I would love the peace and stability that comes with more self awareness and acceptance.


Next, Anna told us to walk slowly round the room noting the shifts of pressure on the souls of our feet and the shifting weight of our bodies from the left-side to the right. She also asked us to notice feelings and sensations in our bodies.

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I could feel the spongyness of my trainers as I pressed my heel down on the floor. I felt the tension in my ankles as I slowly shifted my weight from side to side. I felt a little anxious about bumping into the woman in front of me and thoughts about walking too slowly also came crowding in. Anna gave the group permission to accept all the thoughts and sensations that each of us had. It felt liberating to know there wasn't anything to get wrong.


For homework, Anna wanted us to observe our thoughts and journal them. That was the end of my first week's class. How did it help me? It's too early to tell. Mindfulness is not a magic trick, or superglue, or a band-aid plaster. During the session, I was stopped in my tracks to explore some of my thinking and to experience myself and my setting more fully. That's no small thing.

Anna is very down-to-earth and explained mindfulness with lots of real, everyday examples based on her experiences and learning. I feel stimulated and ready to learn more at the next class.


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Is Compassion and Kindness the same thing?

One subject that we Mindfulness practitioners are often asked about is Compassion and Kindness. It is something that is often associated with spirituality and mindful living, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.

Compassion is best defined as having concern and sympathy for the suffering of others. It is very different from being kind, it requires a level of self awareness that enables you to see beyond your own pain. Kindness on the other hand is the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.

The challenge for those of us who are in a “caring” role or that are practising Buddhists is that people expectation us to always be kind, caring and compassionate. Whilst that is our aspiration, it isn’t always possible to step out of the ordinary human habit to be kind and compassionate at all times, we are just ordinary beings after all.

Compassion requires Wisdom

“Idiot compassion” is a term that the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to describe the type of compassion that is absent of wisdom. Another great Tibetian Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron puts it this way:

Idiot compassion refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Compassion is giving someone what they need not what they want.

I felt compelled to write this short post because after working in a school for a while, it suddenly hit me what we are doing wrong, it is idiot compassion. We are not preparing children for the real world, we are not giving them what they need, we are giving them what they want and this is harmful in the long term and certainly not preparing them for real life.

In today’s society we chase all the pleasures and luxuries, avoiding any discomfort and hardship, even though life is surely a mixture of good, bad and ugly. We spend much of our lives running away from the unavoidable, instead of preparing ourselves for real life, one that is constantly changing and full of the unexpected. Life is just moments of joy with a mix of disaster!

As parents and teachers, should we not be giving our children the tools to deal with all that life will throw at them? Doesn’t real compassion mean we have to sometimes let our children and loved ones experience pain? How else will they be able to live a healthy life if they are never given the space to fail, to pick themselves up and become resilient adults?

Pema Chodron goes on to say that often we use compassion in a way that is harmful to others.

“Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison at the very least, you don’t take it away from them”

What Pema Chodron is illustrating here is when we don’t say the truth in case we hurt someone, we don’t offer them what they really need and so we are not helping, we are just making it worse. This she says is not compassion, it is selfishness as we are more concerned about our own feelings than our friends. Real compassion requires courage, it is not about being a doormat, sometimes compassion requires you to stand for what is right. Look at people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther Kind and Nelson Mandela, they are examples of compassion in action.

Compassion and Mindfulness - The Stable Mind

Buddhism is often called the middle way, we learn to live with what is at any given time as best we can because it is the only moment that truly exists. As Mindfulness has it’s roots in Buddhism, we could say that it is also the practice of living “the middle way”. In other words, we live moment to moment, we don’t chase distractions such as short term pleasures and we seek happiness through a stable mind.

A stable mind is one that is not easily stirred by external events, it is a mind that even if thrown out of balance for a while, it comes back to a peaceful state relatively quickly. A stable mind doesn’t get lost in stories, it let’s them go without a struggle.

Someone with a stable mind knows when to say no, when to walk away and when a hard truth needs to be said. A really compassionate person doesn’t mind losing a friend in order to help them because real compassion isn’t about how we feel, it’s about what the other person needs.

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You should just go for it?

It is very much my moto in life “You should just go for it”, however I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m not too sure it’s always the best moto. Why? Because if you are not careful, just going for it can also be reckless and I have to admit I think at times in my life I’ve been pretty reckless.

Now being reckless isn’t always such a bad thing, it can make life interesting and unpredictable but at the same time it can also mean that life has no planned direction.

What does this have to do with Mindfulness? Well often we see Mindfulness as living moment to moment and that of course is pretty much mindful living, except as a friend keeps reminding me,

“dreams without a plan are just dreams”

If we are to create a life that is based on our values and dreams we must also have a forward looking perspective. This can sound very much opposed to living mindfully but in fact it isn’t. To be focused on creating a meaningful life, one that will be fulfilling and content is a noble aspiration. And the trick isn’t to live in the future, it is to have that vision whilst being able to stay very much in the present moment.

Dreams - Aspirations - Living in the Moment

I'm currently based in a school in London, a very challenging one at that and what I’m noticing is a little worrying. Our young people are living almost completely for the future and whilst that is of course healthy for young people, what is missing is a sense of reality and presence in the now.

Dreams and aspirations are unrealistic because they are based on what young people are seeing on social media, their “heroes” are people who are living materialistic lives that are not deeply happy. What I mean by that is that their happiness is completely reliant on materialistic gain which is never going to bring lasting happiness. It is so fragile that to base a lifetime ambition on materialistic wealth is unhealthy.

I guess we owe it to the young generation to show them that sometimes being content with the simple things in life is a real aspiration that can bring lasting happiness. And of course to help them see that happiness is not something external, it is a mindset that is very undervalued.

Should you just go for it?

Of course I would never advocate a life lived always on the safe side, that would go against my values. Perhaps finding a happy medium is best. Or perhaps thinking about calculated risk rather than just going for it. Have a plan, meditate on it, check how it feels in your body when you think about whatever it is you are contemplating doing and always have a plan.

I guess it’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning every day but this time trying to do it without jumping into the deep end without a life vest!

Thanks to a close friend, I now have a new moto:

“I don’t have dreams, I have plans”

Mindfulness in the City

Mindfulness in London - View of the City

Mindfulness in London - View of the City

I'm a Londoner, born and raised. I love city life, not yet tired of it. Having lived in Cyprus for ten years I know the difference between living in a busy city like London and a quiet, slow-paced place like Cyprus. I know how stressful life can be in London, just a simple train journey into central London is enough to break any sense of tranquility. 

So how do we stay mentally healthy whilst living our daily lives here in London (and of course other cities across the world)?

The Origins of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can greatly enhance how we experience life, even in the city or perhaps especially in the city. To understand how Mindfulness can be incorporated into our busy lives, we first need to understand what Mindfulness truly is.

And to do that we need to look at its origins, Buddhism. I want to bring attention particularly to the Zen master Thich Nhat Han who is often referred to the master of Mindfulness. Many of us who study Buddhism can get caught up in the intellectualization of the teachings, studying, reading, trying to understand. However, Zen Buddhism reminds us that there is no need to study, to understand even because all we need to do is practice. 

This short conversation between the Buddha and a philosopher may help to clarify what Mindfulness is:

 "I have heard that Buddhism is a doctrine of enlightenment, What is your method? What do you practice everyday?" - philosopher
"We walk, we eat, we wash ourselves, we sit down...." Buddha
"What is so special about that, everyone walks, eats, washes and sits down" - philosopher
"Sir, when we walk, we are aware that we are walking, when we eat, we are aware that we are eating.........When others walk, eat, wash or sit down, they are generally not aware of what they are doing" - Buddha

So we can see from this simple conversation that Mindfulness is not an intellectual method, one that needs a deep study. It requires practice, every day, focused, committed practice. Working on the small things, becoming aware of what we are doing at any given moment and remembering to be kind when things don't go as we had wished.

Mindfulness is being rather than doing.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Meditation is what we call the "formal" practice of Mindfulness, an essential part of the practice. However, it is a common misconception in the West that meditation is all we need to do to be a Mindfulness practitioner. There is little point in sitting on a cushion for an hour and then making no effort to be mindful in our day to day life. 

I find that people are often discouraged from Mindfulness because they feel that they don't have time to meditate. Of course, we all have time to sit quietly for 10 minutes a day, it's because we don't know the benefits that we don't make the time. So maybe we should start with daily activities and slowly build in our meditation? 

Mindfulness in the City

Mindfulness in London Southbank

Mindfulness in London Southbank

It is possible to live in a busy city and remain mindful, developing your awareness of what's happening at any given moment and alleviating your stress levels.

You can begin with simple things such as:

  • Reduce noise in your life
  • Switching off distraction, turn the TV, radio and Technology off for a while
  • Establish a routine that sets you up for the day
  • Do one thing at a time and focus on that one thing only
  • Remember to breath before reacting
  • Develop self kindness and become aware of your harsh self talk

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How to be in the present moment

People refer to Mindfulness as being in the moment and although that sounds so easy, it's actually very difficult to do. Most of us don't really understand what that means because we usually spend our time going from being in the past to going into the future. We may have experienced moments of being totally in the present, perhaps when we are in nature or when we are doing something that totally engrosses us. But most of the time we are going from doing one thing to the next, rarely stopping to be present for whatever is happening at the time. Our mind is always on the go.

At our Mindfulness courses we teach people how to begin to pay attention. We start by making a conscious decision to stop for a moment and really be present. It takes effort to start with but with practice it can become very therapeutic and certainly life changing.

Mindfulness Daily Activity

When we look at Eastern culture we may find it intriguing or even mystical to see how they have a whole ritual around making a cup of tea. Or when we watch people in China slowly perform Tai Chi in the park, we may think its something for them, not us. In monastic life, it is in the mundane everyday tasks that people learn to be mindful. This is the training, this is where you will find the way to stay in the moment.

One of the tasks we give during our courses is to choose a daily activity and to just do that one thing, to remove all distractions, background noise and other activities. For some people that can be very difficult to do. We maybe in the habit of watching TV while we are having our morning tea or coffee, therefore not really being present. When we switch off all distraction, we start to notice just how busy our mind is. We use the daily activity to get to know our mind and how to bring it back to the moment, to the making a tea, brushing our teeth and we do this in a gentle and kind way. 

When we start to experience being in the now and how the mind is quiet, we realise that this is when we are relaxed, at peace and stress free. This can also be a challenge for some, in my experience when working with cancer patients, the present moment may not be easy for them. However, to live with cancer and other trauma, we have to get out of the past and future thinking. This is where Mindfulness becomes life changing, where we learn that the past and future are only alive in our thoughts. 

To better understand, I am sharing the thoughts of cancer survivors from one of my courses. Their words bring it to life.

Brushing Teeth Mindfully

"I look at the bristles on the toothbrush, notice how toothpaste is spread on the toothbrush. How thick is it? What colour is it? I watch the water as it covers the toothpaste, listen to the way the water trickles off the toothbrush. How do the bristles feel against my teeth and tongue? How does toothpaste taste? How does it feel against my teeth?

Notice the sensation of bristles against my teeth. Notice temperature of water as I rinse the toothpaste out. Feel the sensation of water as I rinse my mouth full of water out. How does that feel?

Feel texture of material of the towel, is it cotton? against my skin as I dry my face. Notice how my teeth feel now" - Gavin Cancer Survivor

Gavin was kind enough to share his second daily mindful activity.

Mindfully Making Tea

Mindful Tea Drinking

"Notice the silence in the kitchen before I fill the kettle up. Recognise the burst of water as it leaves the tap and enters the water filter. Aware of noise of water as it goes into the filter. Feel the texture of the tea bag between my fingers as I extract if from the cold, silver, cylindrical container and place it in the white, cool china mug.

Be aware of the bright light and low faint hum of the fridge as the door opens and the cold air wafts against my face. Notice the resistance of the fridge door as I pull it towards me. I extract the milk from the fridge, feeling the sensation of the cold carton against my hand.

Notice the sound and flow of water as I empty the water filter into the kettle. Beware of the silence as I wait for the kettle to boil, perhaps gazing through the patio doors and observing the peacefulness, stillness in colours outside in the garden. Notice change in the sound of the kettle as it comes to the boil.

As I pour the boiling water into the mug I notice the sound being made and how the colour of the water darkens as the tea brews in the freshly boiled water. Again I notice how the colour of the water in the mug changes milk is added to taste. 

Finally, I notice how the brown sugar is made up of so many tiny granules which move silently in the sugar bowl as I carefully measure the required amount into the mug". 

Mindful Coffee Making

Mindfulness Washing Hands

"I go to the cupboard and pick up the metal coffee container, I feel the cool of the metal against my hand. I enjoy the smell of coffee when the canister is opened. I take a mug and the cafetiere from the other cupboard. I measure a spoon and a bit extra of the coffee and put it into the cafetiere. It makes a soft sound as it hits the bottom. I fill the plastic kettle at the sink, being aware of the weight of the appliance in my hand. Hear the squeak of the turning tap and the swoosh of the water in the kettle. 

I hear the click of the kettle when switched on and the sound of the water as it heats up. Turn off the kettle before it boils and pick up and fill the cafetiere. I place the plunger on the top and while waiting I go to the fridge and grasp the plastic carton of milk. I hear the whisper of the door opening and shutting. 

I pour the cold milk into the mug and slowly push the cafetiere plunger, feeling resistance as I push it down. Slowly pour the coffee on top of the milk and sit down to enjoy the first coffee of the day" - Christine Cancer survivor.

Why we practice Mindfulness?

Through making this conscious effort to pay attention you can see just how different the whole experience was for both Gavin and Christine. They felt sensations, heard sounds, smelt the coffee and tea, they were truly present for the moment.

In our daily life, we rarely stop to pay attention, in our courses we discuss "auto-pilot" which is how we live our life on most days. It is when we stop doing for a while and really be connected to our senses, that we start to feel alive. 

Scientifically the more we develop the capacity to stay in the moment, the less our mind becomes stressed and full of anxiety. This is why science is now showing how Mindfulness is changing our neurological pathway and improving mental well being. 

Mindfulness is a way of life, it takes time and effort to develop a sense of presence and awareness. Start simply by taking one daily activity and be present for it. When you notice your mind straying into the past or future, direct your attention back to your activity. Practice this every day and slowly you will notice how different life feels.

Join one of our courses to learn how to bring Mindfulness into your life. 

 

Taking Care of You

It's been a busy start to the year. I've been running Mindfulness courses non-stop, mainly Mindfulness for Cancer. I am privileged to work with such amazing, beautiful people. I am humbled by the strength and courage of all the participants on my courses.

I try to give my all and make every effort to be totally present in my sessions. I share my own experiences, I show my vulnerability because I want everyone to see that I am just human, that I am no different than them. It is important to me that each participant feels we are all connected and that we all struggle at times. None of us is immune to difficulty, challenge and suffering in life, it is all part of being human. 

I have noticed that I can sometimes feel totally drained after one of my group sessions. It's not a physical tiredness, it's much more about being emotionally exhausted. 

Sometimes the answer is to give up the fight Surrender to itLet it beDon't control itDon't fight itIt will pass if you leave it alone.png

Caring for Yourself

When we care for others, we can forget to care for ourselves. And we can think that taking care of ourselves as selfish and certainly not a priority. However, if we don't take care of ourselves then we are less able to care for our loved ones, we are less able to do our work and help others.

This week I've struggled, even had to fight with many of my own emotions. And I've sat in silent contemplative meditation, reflecting on particular questions, to see what might come to the surface. 

What is the point of fighting, what's the point of pushing yourself to keep going when the mind and the body are both saying "time out"? There is no point, we have to stop, we must listen and give up the struggle. We should listen to the signals our body is giving us. 

Sometimes we need to take care of ourselves first, sometimes we have to place ourselves in the centre of our own life. If we don't, then we are no good to anyone, especially to those we are trying to help.

“Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.” - Tara Brach

No Guilt

So I gave up tonight, I have been totally unproductive and there's no guilt. What is the point of taking time out and then feeling guilty? If we decide to let things go, to stop the struggle and give ourselves what we need, then we need to drop the guilt too.

This is the point I guess, sometimes we just have to give ourselves permission to do nothing, to stop doing and just "be" for a while. Give ourselves permission to stop trying to avoid the need to slow down, to let whatever needs to pass, to just pass. 

We are not used to being, we are taught to be productive, to keep "doing" and if we are not careful we burn out. 

If we learn to listen to the mind and body, then we can learn to take care of ourselves before it becomes too much. Pay attention to the signs, learn to give yourself what you need and remember you are worth it!