Gladdening the mind

Inspired by Tara Brach talk: Happy for No Reason, Part 2.

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“When you go to a garden do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine” -Rumi

 

Awareness is the intention of mindfulness practice. And working with what is there is also part of the moment and the practice. We know now of the ‘darkside’ of neuroplasticity: our biological negativity bias primes us to pay most attention to threat and danger. Unaware  we allow that bias to become the habit of mind. Awareness invites us to tune into those habitual patterns: we notice the mind’s bias for the negative and how that narrows our perspective and restricts our actions. Yet we can also remember ‘positive neuroplasticity’: that we equally have a natural capacity for goodwill, peace and joy. How that cultivates the space, the bigger picture, the broader perspective. Helping us to be with those difficult moments in this broader compassionate space.

Mindfulness practice helps us to become aware, to cultivate a space for wise responding in life. From that space we can create different habits of mind, habits of mind that cultivate that goodwill and ‘gladden the mind’. Where will that lead us then?  An ocean of possibility. The joyful mystery of living unfolds. Being with all that is, in midst of challenge and difficulty, acknowledging and recognising that and also acknowledging and recognising the goodwill and kindness that is there too. Back and forth.  Ebb and flow.  Riding those waves of life. With an ease rather than a forceful grasping.

We can actively notice and cultivate our natural goodwill in 3 easy ways:

  1. Gratitude: Appreciating 3 things each day, no matter how small or mechanical this act seems to be. Studies show that writing these 3 things down over 15 days, most of us feel different, with a more positive outlook in life. Sharing these with others and we feel more connected too.  How can you cultivate the attitude of gratitude today?
  2. Serving: We are biased for self-referential thinking, addicted to it even.  Again this is linked to our threat thinking loop. Being less self-absorbed is less painful though. And connecting with others and having meaning in life helps. Studies show that when we give to others, the pleasure spots in our brains light up.  As simple as a kind thought, look, or wish for others  we can cultivate that attitude of friendliness towards all. What random act of kindness can you offer today?
  3. Savouring: How often do we simply allow ourselves to receive the pleasurable moments in life? To recognise that this is enough. The surprise hug from a loved one, the sweet song of the garden robin, a cool breeze or warm sun on your face, a kindly message from a friend. Name it, savour it, sensing in the body where we feel the moment – the smell, the sound, the touch, the taste, the felt emotion in the body; acknowledging that ‘this is a happy moment’. Can you allow yourself to receive these happy moments today?

Try it and see what happens!
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May I be happy, my dear friend may you be happy, may all beings everywhere be happy.  Though it may not be so.  May it be so.

Boredom = Aversion?

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Practising formal mindfulness meditation, whatever kind of beginner, the problem of boredom can be often named as the experience.  Maybe it shows up as a restlessness, an edginess. It’s the urge to do something and a resistance to sitting doing nothing. A habit of mind. The solution? try the attitude of curiosity: that willingness to discover something new, starting over each moment afresh, anew; it’s that willingness to notice conditioned habits of thinking and acting and to let these go and see what lies beneath expectation and beyond ‘knowing’.

Reading Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart, his words of wisdom connect boredom as an aversive reaction to our experience:

Usually we are afraid of boredom and will do anything to avoid it.  So we go to the refrigerator, pick up the phone, watch TV, read a novel, busy ourselves constantly in an attempt to escape our loneliness, our emptiness, our boredom.  When we are without awareness, it has a great power over us and we can never be at rest.  Yet we need not let boredom run our lives this way.  What is boredom when it is experienced as itself?  Have we ever really stopped to look at it? 

Boredom comes from a lack of attention.  With it we also find restlessness, discouragement and judgement.  We get bored because we don’t like what is happening or because we feel empty and lost.  In naming it, we can acknowledge boredom and let it be a state to explore:  When boredom arises, feel it in the body.  Stay with it.  Let yourself be really bored.  Name it softly as long as it lasts.  See what the demon is.  Note it, feel its texture and energy, the pain and tensions in it, the resistances to it.  Look directly at the workings of this quality in the body and mind.  See what story it tells and what opens up as you listen.  When we finally stop running away or resisting it, then wherever we are can actually become interesting! When the awareness itself is clear and focus, even the repeated movement of the in- and the out-breath can be a most wonderful experience.

Remembering the power of spaciousness

I enjoyed a sunny canalside walk this morning … a bright, fresh spring time morning and the singing birds a treat to share the space.  It’s all around, it lies within, the spaciousness that strengthens and soothes our being. Noticing and being with the ebb and flow of being … thoughts, feelings, sounds, memories, presence, emotions, smiles, tears, friendly faces, joyful skipping, hearty breakfast.  Respecting that spacious of time, I discovered a new pathway, a new bridge on an old route … new to me at least … symbolic discoveries much welcomed today.

canalside peaceful moment

 

Fire – by Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn

Is space between the logs,

A breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

Too many logs

Packed in too tight

Can douse the flames

Almost as surely

As a pail of water would.

So building fires

Requires attention

To the spaces in between,

As much as to the wood.

When we are able to build

Open spaces

In the same way

We have learned

To pile on the logs,

Then we can come to see how

It is fuel, and absence of the fuel

Together, that make fire possible

We only need to lay a log

Lightly from time to time

A fire

Grows

Simply because the space is there,

With openings

In which the flame

That knows just how it wants to burn

Can find is way.

Well-being is a skill?

sun smiles birds smile back

Listening to Richie Davidson, neuroscientist on a youtube clip today.  I think it’s from last year.  The world of mindfulness and meditation integrating with science and neuroplasticity.  The evidence, he says,  is that our brain is shaped by our experience and how we make sense of it.  And this is how we can take responsibility for our health and happiness, by tuning in to the ways we can shape our experiences and reinforce the neural pathways that promote growth and wellness of being. It’s not easy though.  And some aspects take more practice repetitions than others.

Davidson references William James, one of the founding psychologists in the US.  Over 100 years ago, he was writing how attitudes are malleable, experience is shaped by what we attend to and we can choose our thoughts.  He was tuned in to the reality of wandering attention yet was less clear on the practicalities of how to train the brain:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”  William James, Psychology: Briefer Course, p. 424 (Harper Torchbooks, 1961).

The scientific studies of mindfulness and meditation seems to showing the way.  Davidson refers to four parts of well-being: attention, outlook, generosity and resilience. Each of these activating various neural circuitry or pathways that can be viewed and compared across people.

Firstly, attention. We pay attention maybe half of the time.  Our minds become habituated to scatter more easily as we get caught up in whirlwinds of distractions. Our attention span is lessening too – now we share the same span as a goldfish, some say, maybe 8 seconds? Mindfulness trains us to focus attention and can help us to develop the capacity to let go of distractions with a gentleness and an ease.  We are less likely to get kidnapped by every thought and more discerning about what we need to pay attention and when.  Seasoned meditators show greater activation in the areas of the brain that suggest greater efficiency of attention, impulse control and capacity for sustained attention.

The next aspect, outlook.  We can build a positive outlook in how we relate to our experience. This is our capacity to see the innate goodness that lies within us all.  We can see the glass half-full.  View not threat but opportunity.  Rather than ‘this is a problem’ what if we told ourselves, ‘this is not a problem’, ‘yes it is difficult and unpleasant, but not a problem”  How might that affect us asks Tara Brach.  This is not deny or turn away from harm or abuse but we become more tuned in to when we need to respond.  We can tune in to the positive aspects of experience to nourish our well-being. This aspect requires minimal training for impact.  Davidson cites a study that involved novice meditators practising a metta or lovingkindness meditation for 30 minutes a day for 2 weeks changed the neural circuitry associated with this aspect of well-being.

Thirdly, generosity. Gratitude practices and activities of generosity have greatest impact of all the positive psychology strategies.  The act of offering kindness and inviting an attitude of non judging of our experiences permeates in all meditation practices, with metta explicitly offering kindness to ourselves and extending out to offer kindness to others. When we can see and accept our own flaws and characters as humans, we are more able to be accepting of those we see in others.  We recognise all our experience simply as life is. Not better or worse, just life.  Giving to others feels better than receiving from others studies show.

Finally, resilience.  This is our capacity to bounce back from adversity.  How quickly we recover from negative experience and emotions.  This is the one where the dose effect of meditation really shows up.  The more you practice, the quicker you bounce back. The more likely you are to view experience as an opportunity for growth rather than stay stuck in threatened, reactive mode. How we relate to our experience changes.

And it’s not all about meditation per se, Ellen Langer offers. Perhaps. Meditation, if we perceive it as a formal sitting in silence and contemplating on the now, is the tool to train in this quality of attention.  Yet since mindfulness is a quality of attention that we can bring to every moment, then each moment is an opportunity to practice no matter where we find ourselves. We can perceive each moment as a meditation, as Jon Kabat-Zinn guides. Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to ‘walk as though we are kissing the earth’, ‘drink our tea as if it is the axis around which our world revolves’ and ‘wash the dishes to wash dishes’. Perhaps it is about the degree of engagement in those moments and our capacity to hold a broader spacious awareness where experience unfolds in its own way, with an ease of coming and going, all aspects equally welcome, awareness connecting us with ourselves and with each other as we live the best lives we can in this moment.  Gratitude for flowing clean water. Kindly wishes to us all to be happy and free from suffering.

Living with awareness of the big sky mind across which the birds fly.  The ocean within which the waves come and go.   These are the practical ways we can build our well-being and provide our own education par excellence.

My brilliant friend

This month our book club choice was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente. An unusual read was my conclusion as we shared our experience. Linguistically, emotionally, conceptually. It took commitment to stay with it. Other books I’ve read and the pace may be slow, the intention unclear yet somehow the experience remains enjoyable in and of itself. Maybe the words and descriptions enough.  Less so with this read for me. And yet I stayed with it. Curious enough to stay with it. Somehow a connection made with the narrating character’s journeying without destination? There were moments of intrigue, of heart.

I realise I tried to categorise – is it story of growing up I asked? A story of deprivation, strength and courage? Of an inner strength of being weaving its inevitable path through life. Firstly in the admiration of another, in the connecting with another to the widening out and ultimately separating from that other yet remaining implicitly connected, growth from that connection. A deep wisdom from both knowing and attaching and yet a quality of detaching and broadening out of perspective emerging too.  As I reflect in this moment on the story and remember the background context of poverty, violence and distress, connection and separation, I’m reminded of the wise words of Rumi:

“Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are.”

The wildflowers find their way, find the crack. There were delightful moments of presence for me and I gasped with a heartful and joyful in-breath upon experiencing some phrasing.  Phrasing that seemed to capture an emotional resonance, both in the story and in the human condition, at an implicit knowing level rather than thinking level if that makes sense?

…amid a thousand fears and a thousand curiosities, I set out ...” This wonderful phrasing struck me as skilfully capturing the dual experience of excitement and fear in approaching a new adventure, a new opportunity?

Later on the narrating character reflecting on an important relationship in her life says: I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences“.  That ebb and flow of connecting and separating in life? with self? with others? with the world? The natural dance of living and being, of relating. 

And the interconnectedness of being and beings as the insight in these words?  ” it was as if … the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other” .   

And the final heart/breath gasping moment: “…at a certain point school is over. Not for you, you’re my brilliant friend“. The declaration of love and admiration she’d hoped for but not dared to believe perhaps? True love that recognises and encourages the continued growth potential of the other.

There are more episodes written I believe but I’m not going to rush to listen to the next story … i’ll let the seeds settle from this one and savour this unexpected experience; enjoyable for the experience of unexpected and uncategorisable.

love a flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing to stop and be with the moment

I started listening to a retreat talk on “Widening the circles of compassion” this week.  It’s sometimes the loveliest way to be with my commute.  I had to stop and pause, sit with the insights emerging for me in that moment.

I’d often seen these words:

mind master servant

And they came into my awareness as I listened on this day.  Our thoughts may be real but they are not true.  We have the power to choose our thoughts – after all, we created them ourselves.  We fed them ourselves.  This year when I notice sticky thoughts, ruminating emotions or an urge to return to old habits: I’ve been practising asking myself the questions: How is this response helping me  Enriching my life? Going further I may sometimes try to ask ‘what lies beneath that belief?’ , though I try to simply ask the question and let it be, otherwise I’m deep in interpretive or analytical mode!

I struggle most with feelings of irritations with others – how to be with? Yes not be passive. So when these arise, I may gently and lightly explore : is there fear? blame? a disconnect from these others? Unreal others and unreal self Tara Brach names this as.  When we are all connected, there is no blame.  If we knew the whole story, their perspective, might we feel that blame? Or might we feel a deep sense of connection for their pain and suffering?  This is the key with compassion and self-compassion too.  I need to be able to be with my own pain and suffering in order to be free and open to be with that of others, to let myself feel it with them.  This is the antidote to violence and war.  Yet it seems it is much harder to be with pain and suffering within and together. So perhaps I can try to catch my ‘should’ – ‘she should be more like this …’,  ”he should know …’ and ask, ‘what is their suffering?’ If we knew, and felt this in a deep, honest and true way, how may we feel towards our apparent enemy?

be kind

So a few practices for me to remember and try with came to mind:

Stop – recognise the should-thought, the shame/blame-feeling, noticing where in the body there is a sensation nowL this is awareness. Mindfulness.

For a wider perspective, to build the bigger room where these thoughts and emotions have the space to move about rather than get stuck … I can choose to tune in to the breath as the anchor, in the body, the constant space provider and builder. The doorway to the present moment.

And then, what action or thought may I now choose, to enrich and nourish in this moment? Maybe offering words of metta (lovingkindness) to my self and others.  Maybe simply being with whatever is here, in this moment.  That is enough. To hold rather than avoid or annoy, stay with the moment until it passes of its own accord into the next moment.  Now it has the space of heartfulness.  Are we not all more enriched from this space?  We have the power to choose and be master over our thoughts and actions.

Musings inspired by retreat talk offered on http://www.tarabrach.com.