If you have been to my classes or read some of my other blogs you’ll know that mindfulness is not just about attitude of the mind, but it is all informed by the attitude of the body, and especially the most fundamental aspects of physiology; like the breath.
This blog is written to give you a breakdown of the techniques, but also the background philosophy - why would you bother to undertake a breathing practice? After all, it’s a natural bodily function that doesn’t require any conscious effort. I’ve notice that when people in my classes initially regulate the breath, interrupting the automatic function, they say it seems clunky or feels awkward - like we’d be better off leaving it alone. Yet, with mindful noticing they also sense changes in the body - calming and releasing of tension. I have found profound learning from playing with the breath - So here are my experiences and research.
BREATHING FROM THE PAST
Unconscious / automatic breathing is largely doing a good job for you (keeping you alive) and you can still potentially improve it, because it is inevitably conditioned by some experiences in your life that have formed mental associations. For example, you may notice your body / mind going into panic over a misspoken word with a colleague, which may unconsciously remind you of being rejected by an old friend - a painful memory buried in the subconscious.
These memories are not conscious, so you only know something is out-of-sync with reality by noticing the physical reaction first. We tend to be unaware of the changes in our breathing that dramatically add to our emotional state. These daily occurrences of disproportionate reactions are fuelled by negative mental associations, and if we do not become aware of them and start working with then we add to them, gradually reinforcing the embodied reactions.
If you continue to act unaware of this, the body will eventually create pain or attain disease, which forces you to pay attention and change something. Continued ‘stressful breathing’ (like short sharp breaths, or shallow breaths) releases adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream unnecessarily, which stresses the body.
Much like looking at your teeth and then brushing appropriately reduces the stress of tooth decay we can reduce stress by watching the breath, becoming more conscious of what situations or thoughts are associated with ‘stressful breathing’. This will tell you a lot about you mind and areas of ‘fear’ or avoidance. We can then alter the way we breathe.
If we remain unconscious of the breath patterns we often act on impulse. Here our reaction to rising emotional panic might be to ‘act out’ (including blaming something / someone else) or ‘retreat’ (which may include shutting down and therefore retreating inwardly). This is known as the fight or flight function of the instinctive and emotional brain (the amygdala). Indulging this can lead us into a T.R.A.P. of our own ignorance, where the following happens (and may have been happening for some time):
LEARN FROM EXCITEMENT, INCLUDING SPORTS
We can learn and develop the ability to reprogram positive patterns in the mind and body. A good way to do this is to bring presence to any situation where breath changes due to excitement. As an example I’ll share where I first learned about conscious breathing - rock climbing!
I learned this the hard way - trial and error in extreme situations. I would get to a dangerous moment on the rock, where, if overly focused on the dangers, I began to panic, then I’d be in serious trouble! (I had a couple of nasty falls).
So I learned in these moments that the best initial response to the rising panic was to purposefully breath longer and smoother breaths. I would then direct my focus to my feet and hands, and my immediate surroundings, checking things were okay. Then I could more accurately assess the risks, from a place of relative calm objectivity, rather than emotional panic. At times I added more confidence boosting strategies like a mantra (a mind affirmation repeated over and over), or by verbalising ‘It’s ok, I’m ok” and telling myself what I was going to do next. I would literally talk myself through it!
Early warning signs that panic is rising can be found in the sensations of tension and the change of breath. By noticing breath when it becomes short & sharp or shallow, and respond with a little playfulness and presence we can program a reaction to any stress trigger. This is what I learned - to program in the following response to stress; I slow down for a moment and become B.O.L.D:
"The trick is to keep breathing" - Janice Galloway
PERSEVERE WITH SOME OBJECTIVE PERSPECTIVE
This can apply to normal life as much as it can extreme situations; imagine you are at work and you are trying to make headway with a difficult project, but you feel frustrated. Take a moment and notice your bodily sensations and your breath. Then, play with it; control your breath. This is essentially about changing something simple, partly to break the existing pattern. The simplest thing to change is focus and breath. However, changing your physical location and posture can also aid this transition to calm, so if it helps, get up from the desk and do this in a different place. This will give you better perspective to objectively assess and then refocus. At first it might seem to make things worse. This is for two main reasons:
TAKE IT EASY
The trick is to bring in an element of playfulness and ease - don’t try too hard or you will simply add to the panic. Gradually the automatic response to the trigger of shallow / holding breath patterns becomes more healthy Shortly after you can create a habit of opening up or dropping negative thinking with mini moments of objectivity - meditation, for example. This calms the physiology of the body, lowers adrenaline and cortisol level and oxygenates the blood, ready for refocusing on calm action. This will also help the body and mind stay healthy and balanced.
LOOKING AHEAD: IT’S NOT WHAT YOU DO, BUT HOW AND WHY YOU DO IT.
The psychological aspect to breathing well can be as important and the physiological (depending on your background beliefs and attitude). You could create a nocebo effect as a result of cynicism - that is, you may counteract any positive effect the breathing may give you by giving too much weighting to your opposing concepts and beliefs, rather than being willing to try the experience. In this instance conscious breathing will probably result in wasted energy and perhaps even more negative thinking and emotion. So don’t do it if your mind is in resistance - don’t force it.
PLACEBO OF BELIEF
Conversely a placebo effect may give you some short-term benefits, but if you assign too much weighting to this one thing then you are in danger of becoming fixated on one tool as a ‘magic bullet’. Placebo is a powerful product of mind beliefs, yet without presence (noticing & objectively) of the mind and body you could become ignorant of the changing reality of your life situation and hide other useful truths from yourself. A good example is rock climbing again - if one becomes overly confident through the use of breath, visualisation and boldness, one may go too far and take on a challenge that exceeds ones ability, and then have a nasty accident.
MY EXPERIENCE - FIND THE BALANCE
For me an approach of openness, awareness and playfulness yields good results. I like to imagine the breath healing me (which it does, scientifically proven) and I imagine warm feelings as I breath - visualising the oxygen enlivening my cells. These are things that may not be real, but which are helpful. I may imagine light pouring in, or a mantra as I breath like “It’s ok, I’m ok.”
I can then more clearly imagine what I want - visualising it, whilst being sensitive to my body (which will tell me if what I am imagining is unrealistic, by manifesting tension). This is an ‘intuitive’ way and for some people the ‘logical’ way makes more sense. A highly scientific and sceptical mind may require more quantitative research before integrating a new practice - which may (or may not) remove mental barriers to trying this willingly. This is neither good nor bad and I always encourage thinking for oneself and I try to present these blogs not as facts, but as experiences and opinions.
“Remember to breathe. It is after all, the secret of life.”
It’s hard to disentangle this subtle level of placebo that the positive thinking adds, so I don’t worry too much and I enjoy the benefits, aware that my psychology is partly responsible, and occasionally questioning myself or being open to other perspectives. I have researched and found the potential benefits that regular practice of relaxed yet conscious, slow breathing can have:
All of these are potential, because there are a lot of factors at play, not least of which include diet, mental attitude, hydration levels, nuanced context of external stressors. For example, when at the office and noticing the breath during a break t may also be useful to notice if you are thirsty, hungry, sleepy or need the loo. These are important physiological needs that may also be affecting the breath and negative thinking. Nonetheless, as a simple and effective tool I have found breathwork to be invaluable.
IS IT EMBARRASSING?
It can be, depending on the environment you are in. It may be inappropriate to meditate at your desk and start breathing deeply. So take yourself elsewhere to do this. There is a theory by Dan Harris that the in the next decade meditation (which often involves breathing in stillness with your eyes closed, noticing the breath and the body) will be as accepted as jogging is (in comparison to how it was viewed 30 years ago - as a fad). So for now, find a place to do this where you feel safe.
CAN TECHNOLOGY HELP?
Yes - one of the great modern devices, the smartphone, now has access to thousands of free apps, that really help. I have done a quick review of the top 10 free iPhone apps:
5. Nirvana Fitness: breathing fitness to music. The idea is nice, breathing in different timings to music, which can work, but I found it a little clunky and has a lack of options on the free mode.
4. 3 Minute Mediation: A mix of breathing styles, but only 1 or 2 offered on the free model and the timer is, in my opinion, unattractive and difficult to follow.
3. Pranayama Free: An interesting concept with a 3d model of the body and lungs to show you exactly what should be going on inside as you breathe. I quite liked it, but again had very limited options.
2. Deep Breathing Exercises: This had a funny star shaped timer, which was ok, with nice back music and lots of options. It had more ads than other apps, which bugged me.
1. Breathe Deep: My favourite of the apps with lots of options and personalisation. Simple graphics and quick to load.
I use this last app occasionally when I’m working, in my breaks, because it takes away some of the energy input required to do the breathing work and trains in accurate regulation. The downsides are that sometimes I’m not really paying attention to my body as I breathe and I think that presence is helpful to optimize the process and get the most benefit.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON BREATHING METHODS?
Below I have outlined some popular techniques, all of which I’ve tried, some of which for more than a few months. Feel free to skim them at first to see the breadth of possibility. Some of these have been pioneered by the practice of yoga
Prāṇāyāma is a Sanskrit word alternatively translated as "extension of the prāṇa (breath or life force)" or "breath control." The word is composed from two Sanskrit words: prana meaning life force (noted particularly as the breath), and either yama (to restrain or control the prana, implying a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to produce specific results). This is well used and researched and utilises the concept of Chakras (energy point or nodes in the body, of which there are though to be seven major chakras, which are arranged vertically along the axial channel, from the base of the pelvis to the top of the head). These are not conclusively proven in science. There are several techniques but these are the most common:
Ujjayi breathing "the ocean breath". Unlike some other forms of pranayama, the ujjayi breath is typically done in association with asana practice (varied postures designed to stretch and exercise the whole body). Ujjayi is a diaphragmatic breath, which first fills the lower belly (activating the first and second chakras), rises to the lower rib cage (the third and fourth chakras), and finally moves into the upper chest and throat. The technique is very similar to the three-part Tu-Na breathing found in Taoist Qigong practice:
Kapal Bhati Pranayama or Skull Shining Breathing Technique is about calming and bringing your focus into the present moment. It goes like this:
Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama) which is supposed to bring balance through alternating sides and it works as follows:
SOME WESTERN STYLES I'VE TRIED
Whilst yoga uses the belief structures or concepts of Chakras other techniques have been pioneered in the west using scientific research. Remember we are unique and what works for one person may not be universal. Self- experimentation is key, in my opinion.
Wim Hoff method. The Dutch man Wim Hof is a charismatic teacher of mind-body techniques and a record breaker for endurance, commonly nicknamed "The Iceman" for his ability to withstand extreme cold, which he attributes to exposure to cold, meditation and breathing techniques (similar to the Tibetan technique Tummo). He worked closely with scientists around the world to prove that his techniques work. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) claims that by consciously hyperventilating, Wim can increase his heart rate, adrenaline levels and blood alkalinity. The report concludes “These results could have important implications for the treatment of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, such as autoimmune diseases.” The breathing element is as follows:
Box/Square Breathing (or other timings): origin unknown, but used by well researched practitioners like Dave Asprey
Buteyko Breathing is something quite different, that I experimented with this year. It was developed in the 80’s in Russia by Dr Konstantin Buteyko, as a cure for asthma, based on the premise that one of the causes of asthma is over-breathing (hyperventilation), particularly through the mouth, which, according to the theory, causes too much O2 and then inflamed airways as the body’s defence. So therefore the system involves shallow breathing through the nose in order to promote increased clean air intake and increased carbon dioxide in the lungs, and therefore improving the balance of O2 in the blood.
This process can be quite stressful and it is not recommended to try this alone and without expert help, for fear of passing out. The independent did an interesting article on it, which shows successful cases, but also discusses the the reason it isn’t popular is partly due to some scientists dispute the physiological claims that the Buteyko practitioners teach. www.buteyko.co.uk/
Anger is like a storm rising up from the bottom of your consciousness. When you feel it coming, turn your focus to your breath. - Thich Nhat Hanh
Whatever you decide to do, take it easy. I would suggest giving a few slow, deep breaths a go next time you notice you are stressed or stuck. Changing one thing can alleviate stress just long enough for your mind to think clearly again.
My practice has evolved by trying all of these and now do a mixture of the Wim Hoff breath to energise me, the box breathing to calm me into focus and just simple deep, conscious breaths whenever I notice I’m stagnant or tense. Being B.O.L.D (Breathing, Objectivity, Looking up ahead, Doing it) has reprogrammed my mind to more easily come back to the present moment and then into a clearer focus. Give it a go, with care, playfulness and presence.
An inspiration - a long, deep breath of the pure air of thought - could alone give health to the heart. - Richard Jefferies
ATTACHMENTS - THE HIDDEN TIES
The Buddha said “The root of suffering is attachment.” What did he mean by this and how can it help us to understand how we can live differently? This blog is all about how to live life with a better relationship to suffering. Like I’ve said in many other blogs you can’t avoid suffering it’s part of love, but you can 'enjoy' the process, rather than just suffer it. This elaborates on my blog about owning your shit.
So, first of all, by attachment I think the Buddha was referring to ‘need’, ‘craving’ and ‘identification with a fixed idea’. The best expression I know for this is 'Limiting-Self-Beliefs'. For example, the elephant in the picture believes it cannot break the chain, because it was chained from birth. After trying so many times it gave up, even though as an adult it probably could break them it believes the story of 'I can't move further than my TIES allow'. My theory of this is devised to help me remember how us humans generally become attached to:
SO, TAKE A SEAT
When we view them in this order they form TIES, which I find is a useful reminder that they bind me to a rigid and painful way of being - a complex web of TIES requires gradual and persistent loosening and here is my main method - it’s called taking a SEAT (flipping the priority of our awareness). This is a simple process of meditation, where we allow ourselves to slow down and connect with the senses first and see:
When we look at it, sit with it, in non reaction, we naturally reduce the fuel that is energising the story. We also reduce the adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream, released as a mind-body connection that is created by psychological stress. So let’s take a deeper look at the TIES so that we can understand and recognise them. Only then can we begin to loosen them.
TIES TO THOUGHTS
Firstly we often identify with our thoughts, as roles and stories, naturally. As the author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, describes:
“Our massive brains have a vivid imagination. Human beings are the only animals that can see and feel complex things that don’t exist - like the idea of a heaven, or the collective idea and agreement of money. This ability has helped human beings thrive, by working together in millions, unified by common stories of accepted truth. Humans live double lives - one in the reality of natural law (like the animals) and one in the stories we tell ourselves - our collective social laws, etiquette and conditioned behaviour. Stories give us a sense of purpose and drama, which can seem more important than reality, which seems mundane and unimportant, in comparison. The more we get involved in the stories and rigidly ‘believe’ the more we fight against others or the reality that challenge them. These ’beliefs’ lead us to wars and sacrifice of our own lives and create immense suffering.”
But of course Shakespeare said it best:
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”.
THOUGHTS AS ROLES
So perhaps you see yourself a certain way - you have undertaken a role that is so important to you that the values of that role become the driving force in your life. That’s what we ALL do. Examples could be that you see yourself as:
The list goes on - there is no problem in having these roles with some awareness, but most of the time we don’t even notice because we are reacting impulsively to thoughts - these are the invisible TIES. We cannot be enlightened (free, easy-going, open) if we are bound to our roles tightly. Notice if you present your ‘image’ a certain way. If someone challenges you by saying “you are not a very nice person”) do you launch you into defense mode? If we didn’t hold onto these strong beliefs then we wouldn’t react to the challenges so much - they wouldn’t really touch us. And then we can respond as we wish, in an enlightened way. This might be defensive, but it would have a light touch and energy, because it is not needy.
EGO - WHO YOU THINK YOU ARE
Ego is part of nature - it helps us navigate social structures. Too much ego identification prevents us from remembering our true nature and from remembering that we are lucky to simply be alive, to have the gift of life. We might feel burdened by our roles so much, trapped by the compulsive thoughts and beliefs that we feel disconnected from our truth and from other beings. So this is what happens when we become identified with thought.
LOOSEN THE TIES TO THOUGHTS; TAKE A SEAT
So an invitation - sit down, take a few longer breaths, feeling into the body and watching the busy mind, then ask yourself these questions:
TIES TO IMPULSES
We often live on autopilot and sometimes we become reactive - you’ve been there, right? Itching every itch, nervously, feeling agitated and needing release? Or, on a more subtle level, you may notice a background tension of craving - wanting experiences, like needing to eat, or needing a cigarette or even needing to orgasm. You sense that without it you’ll become grumpy or frustrated - the emotional reaction tells us it is more than just a desire (want), it is a craving (a sense of need). I think of this as a ‘want----need’ spectrum.
Craving creates tension in the body, a sense of disempowerment and, if indulged regularly, it will create an identification with a small, separate sense of self that always needs something more. Chemically we can attribute this to the dopamine cycle - which means that hormones in the brain feed the pleasure sensors (release of tension) and then raise our threshold for more tension, meaning that if we want the same dopamine feeling again we have to take it to the next level. This could be based on work, shopping, computer games, sex, sport - anything! Building this pattern we become impulsive sensation-seekers - fixated on getting gratification, or to the next level but missing the scenery of the moment, the beauty of the process. We are focused on the fear of missing out (something I am very familiar with). This means we temporarily lose the ability to enjoy anything we do.
This needy pattern TIES us to the momentum of our greed or ambition and we will get dragged along until we are damaged enough to let go. The delaying of gratification (through getting on with our work, for instance) seems irritating and unpleasant. So we want to develop patience again. My method? Taking a SEAT, breathing well and witnessing it all play out. By doing this we challenge the mind’s assumption that you ‘need’ the experience and that not having it will be ‘unpleasant’. This way we slowly develop trust that we are ok without it and we can trust ourselves to handle difficult experiences. You can also use an exposure tool to experience reality - like cold-shower therapy, for example.
LOOSEN THE TIES TO IMPULSES; TAKE A SEAT
So an invitation - Imagine yourself in the midst of this wanting self..... exaggerate it... what's your body like? Feel it? Restless tension? Heart and emotions? Nervous and fearful of angry? Then ask yourself these questions:
Then.., come back to the body - take a SEAT and meditate. This process of meditation and self-enquiry will naturally loosen the TIES. Trust that the insights will come.
TIES TO EMOTIONS
When we are in our reactive self, tied to thoughts and impulses it is inevitable that emotions will overwhelm us. Think of it like being in the sea, tied to a heavy weight. It’s hard to swim and so when the energy of the sea picks up and we get waves we will be battered around - overwhelmed and engulfed. By now you are getting the method I use - I take a SEAT and reflect where my emotions have become overwhelming - where am I reactive? Ask yourself:
In these areas we are not facing the truth - it seems too big of a ‘problem’. That is until we loosen the TIES - and again the way to do this is by taking a SEAT - stop struggling and watch the waves of emotion, connecting to the very thing you are avoiding connecting to:
Sensations can be intense. We then label them as pain or problematic, but look closer and you’ll see that all sensations are simply different intensity of movements, or vibrations. When you relax the labels and start to just breathe with them, experience them and accept them then you change your relationship with them, gradually and naturally. The old story loosens - they are no longer ‘awful’ or ‘frustrating’ or ‘unbearable’ but they might become ‘interesting’, ‘fascinating’ or ‘wonderful’ and then sometimes… just ‘sensation’. No label required - they just are. This is what we are cultivating in mindfulness; objective seeing.
In order to get into this temporary perspective we must first open up to the sensations, without reaction, or even with a gentle and passive welcoming - we then reverse engineer the whole thing and start to accept the whole lot from the root of sensations. This frees us from the TIES and we start to take a SEAT and ride out the waves of emotions, with consciously chosen actions and focused thoughts - positive thoughts - that create what we want. We can be in it and choose how much we get involved in emotions, impulses and thoughts.
ASK QUESTIONS, DO NOT CRAVE ANSWERS
When we take a SEAT we realise how much the mind compulsively judges, reacts and anylises and we are invited to let it be, not resist, but also not add fuel. We allow it to play out and in doing this we use the breath and we use an attitude of calm, loving kindness. We can pose some questions as we do this:
Don't rush to answers, ask these question internally and stay with the curiosity for a few minutes. In this way we feel the depths of our SEA (Sensations, Emotions and Actions) without engaging too much with thoughts. This is you - the feeling, experiencing you, that is deeper than all the analysis and opinions and stories. Those things are simply the tip of the iceberg - the consciousness.
There is a beautiful poem hints a bit deeper at the truth at which I write about here. Ultimately it must be experienced and poetry allows a taste of experience by stimulating emotion.
The One Deep Inside Your Chest
I’ve been asked by a few people what happens in a mindfulness session. Most people now understand what meditation is - they’ve seen enough meditating buddhists to know that roughly it is a sitting practice of paying attention to one's inner world - the world of breath and sensations in the body. Until experienced however watching and talking about meditation can only take you so far. Like any skill it must be experienced and practiced to yield results.
To facilitate this I tend to start with a 15 minute sitting meditation, in the classic Vipassana (insight) style. This is sitting in a posture that represents ‘self-respect’ (most people opt for sitting upright, but for some the body requires lying down or leaning) and closing the eyes to invite in stillness of body and mind. In that time we listen to the language of the body - Sensations, Emotions and Actions (the SEA). I guide as we explore breath, sound, feelings and keep noticing when the wandering mind goes off into thoughts. These moments are a critical part of the practice. To notice where the mind goes, to observe and allow, and then to choose to let go and turn the attention back to the body, again and again. Gradually this becomes easier.
We talk and share after meditation and this usually brings up a discussion of how we can use mindfulness in our everyday lives. I have a host of tools that I sometimes share or we simply listen to one another, continuing to practice mindful listening.
The final 15 minutes is also dedicated to meditation - but this time I go with the energy of the group. Sometimes we will sit, other times a walk or standing meditation, or to music, or some other movement. We have even brought in food or smells. Sometimes we use the imagination more to practice a compassion or gratitude meditation.
These sessions are designed for new or experienced meditators. They help establish a regular practice and explore concerns. The Tuesday class (4pm) I created is donation-based, making it very accessible and the Wednesday evening (7:45pm) has some slightly longer meditations and is priced normally. I hope you manage to make it along soon and experience mindfulness first hand at Breathe Bristol Yoga Centre - located on 20 Upper Maudlin St, BS2 8DJ (book via MoveGB too) or check out my other courses.
I've always wanted to work with children, for the simple reason that the lessons I have learned from Mindfulness were the kinds of things I could have really used when I was between 9-18 years old:
Think about it - school is tough. These days social skills are on the decrease, thanks to social media and computers and stress is on the increase, thanks to exams from as early as 10 years old. We are piling on the pressure for young people in class sizes 20% bigger and playtime 20% shorter than 10 years ago. The curriculum is slow to catch up with the modern world and is seriously lacking in areas around well-being, emotional and mental health and sex /relationship education.
Mindfulness offers help in three ways:
1. Awareness of choice of thought - reducing worry, stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are not 'truth', but that they are mental reactions, generally based in fear-responses - and linked to stimulus from the body and from memories. We can interrupt troubling thoughts using mindfulness techniques of breath and body awareness and allow us to regain some control over where we put our attention and then how we 'choose' to respond to situations.
2. Awareness of body and emotion - helping people to act responsibly and calmly.
The more we become aware of the body, its sensations and emotions, the more we learn to accept it and listen to it. Our bodies are made of trillions of highly evolved cells, each trying to support growth - giving constant feedback via sensations. Mindfulness teaches us to listen, interpret and respond to these sensations with more wisdom, through sheer practice.
3. Practices and tools to cultivate gratitude, focus and reliance - increasing well-being and happiness.
In the lessons I teach I give tools and practices not only to help with awareness and focus, but also to cultivate one of the most enriching and resilience building states possible; 'gratitude'. When we learn to befriend and appreciate ourselves and the world around us anything is possible and we shift away from negative thinking.
This is highly rooted in neuroscience as well as contemplative ancient arts and historically in the contemplative religions of the east and west. However I teach secular mindfulness - focused only on individual exploration of the self - mind and body, not the spiritual, philosophical or moralistic elements of ancient meditation.
The lessons I teach take simple principles and make them fun and accessible, with easy to use practices. The idea is that they plant a seed that can take root and give young people resilience and resources in times of stress.
Certified in teaching mindfulness
I recently became an accredited teacher of Mindfulness in Schools (run by the Mindfulness in Schools Project), on a course called .b (dot-be) which have empowered me with 10 highly researched lessons to teach to children aged 11-18. I have already been teaching younger age groups at Compass School in Bristol and I have taught outdoor education to young people aged 14-18
The course I recently completed is detailed here. Or click on the link below. I'm offering reduced price taster sessions, for a limited time only. Please get in touch.
Today I has a one to one client and I also utilised the space at Breathe Bristol for the first time to give a free meditation session (the first of a regular Tuesday afternoon event). One of the items we discussed included ‘choices’ and I was reminded of this quote in Susan Jeffers’ book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’ (highly recommended):
'You will never make a bad choice. Notice that what lies ahead are simply two paths - A and B - both of which are interesting and have their own set of experiences, trade-offs, pro’s and cons. Each path will have unique "goodies" of experience along the way, regardless of the outcome of the decision I make.'
This to me makes decision making so much less stressful and can change one's perspective completely. This is as simple as mindfulness gets - everything, when viewed objectively, is experience; learning opportunities. This also came up with my one to one client and we talked a bit more about language, which again is a result of reading the book. Susan calls is ‘Pain to Power Language’ and I think that just the simple awareness of the language one uses and awareness of possible alternatives can have a startling effect on one’s awareness of choice.
Pain -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> -> Power
I can't -------------------------------- I won't
I should ------------------------------- I could
It's not my fault ---------------------- I'm totally responsible
It's a problem ------------------------- It's an opportunity
Life's a struggle ---------------------- Life's an adventure
I'm never satisfied -------------------- I want to learn and grow
I hope --------------------------------- I know
If only -------------------------------- Next time
What will I do? ------------------------ I know I can handle it
It's terrible -------------------------- It's a learning experience
It is important to not ‘trick yourself’ by saying without understanding or feeling. The first step towards REAL change is awareness, the second is acceptance and that’s a whole other topic. If you want to learn more about that, get in touch or come along to the Level 1 and Level 2 workshops in November, where these subjects get covered at an introductory and then a more in-depth level. This wasn't the only thing that got me thinking about choice today...
FREE GUIDED MEDITATION - MUSINGS ON 'FEELING OF OBLIGATION'
...I gave my first of a regular free guided meditation and self-enquiry session. I’m doing this because it allows anyone to access the work or to come along and try out my particular way of teaching and guiding. I want to create a world where we can support each other into kind awareness, which doesn't always have an ‘obligation of reciprocation’ of money.
Why do I use this strange term, ‘obligation of reciprocation’? Well, I’m reading a book by Robert Caldini, called Influence, which is all about the psychology of persuasion. The book’s first chapters indicate that the human brain has created many ‘automatic’ responses, otherwise life would be overly complex. These responses include the feeling of obligation when one is given ‘a gift’. That obligation usually encourages the receiver to give something back. This is often manipulated by salesmen or canvassers, such as the Krishnas did in the 60’s when they presented people with a rose or a book. Even though the gift was often unwanted the receiver usually then felt obliged to give something back (a donation).
I’m reading more about influence as I go because I am seeking ways to inspire people into kind awareness, rather than passing out advice, judgement, or moralising. I encourage and inspire people to find their own path. I therefore teach effective communication techniques, including ‘positive means of influence’ in my Level 2 and 3 courses.
So, even though this is a completely free session it is interesting to be mindful of the feeling of obligation that may naturally occur - that feeling isn't always negative as it can create a virtuous, energy-giving cycle, but it is always helpful to be aware of choice vs obligation otherwise obligation becomes an unconscious weight to carry.
As it turned out some people cancelled and it ended up being a one-to-one session, which we both really enjoyed. We spent the first 20 minutes meditating and the feedback I got was that just this was a huge benefit, because it allowed the person to unwind and to clear her mind. The practice of meditation is something pivotal to helping us relax, connect with our inner wisdom of felt sensation and to become more self-aware. This is covered in depth in all levels of the courses.
Enlightenment is a big word that doesn't really mean much. It is a feeling of lightness. Perhaps this comes from a belief or an understanding or an attitude, or just simply laughter at something funny, or a beautiful sunny day enjoying the grass.
The permenent state of enlightenment is a mythical place where we feel this constantly - it doesn't work like that. If we are always wishing to 'attain' this we never quite succeed. Here is why: it's a process:
When you are young you accept life as amazing and magical. If you have a healthy upbringing this is supported and you develop a healthy self-esteem. If you have abuse or neglect you can develop some self-beliefs, judgements and tension in the body that will cause pain and shorten your enjoyment of the innocence of childhood. Either way there is a phase in your life that is new and forms your self beliefs.
As you grow up and develop a sense of identity and an ‘understanding’ of how the world works (based on the culture of fear and scarcity usually) you forget about the magic and start to take it all very seriously. It can be fun but also very scary, dangerous, ugly, painful and harmful. Teenage and young adult years are filled with change, but that is sometimes harder to embrace once one ‘thinks’ one know what the world is about. Social understanding can lead to embarrassment, self-hatred, fear, depression etc. Or if one has support or a good early sense of self-esteem it can be a wonderful time of making friends, learning skills and finding direction. . Either way there is a phase in your life that is new and forms your direction.
At some point in your adult life, when one is ready, we start investigating deeply our beliefs; ones feelings and ones relationship with the world a lot of realisations happen. There are many paths to these realisations; pain, dis-ease, depression, music, dance, breakdown, spiritual awakening, following your desire, tantra…. As many as there are thoughts in your head. The journey can be a painful struggle or a battle or a near death experience. It can also be a gentle allowing, or a disciplined and patient observing, or a screaming thrill-ride, or an orgasmic melting. If you really pay attention you get to choose. Either way this is a period of investigation and understanding. To know oneself.
So what do these realisations bring? Well, nothing physical. It’s something non-tangible – a connection with your nature - a remembering that the world IS amazing and magical and beautiful and rich and ever changing. It can also bring a new sense of power paradoxically tinged with powerlessness. Faith that everything is perfect and you are fully responsible, but only if you let go of needing and control. That is the real paradox – in order to be truly powerful one must surrender. Anything else is tinged with a hint of fear of loss or lack. Depending on the support through the other stages, interactions and reading, education and which path you chose you will get there either quickly of slowly, painfully or easily, joyfully or angrily… or you may never quite get there until your last moments, when you are forced to face the nature of your temporary reality. This is a period of enlightenment and there are many paths.
So let’s imagine we have got to this place, this attitude and understanding that the world is perfectly unfolding in magic. So what? Then what?
Well now you get to play. Really play. There will be fear and you can allow the fear and do the stuff you love anyway. There will be sadness and joy and disgust and pain and you can relax and allow all of them, paying attention and seeing the beauty or resisting and enjoying the fight and the thrill of swimming with or against the flow. Deep down you understand your beliefs are just that and you know what you want. This is a time of clarity.
I call enlightenment ‘Embracing the mystery’. It doesn’t mean losing your curiosity – quite the opposite. One can still quest for scientific understanding or spiritual connection and awakening or learning new skills and having challenging relationships. But now one does these things from a place of love. One does things for the love of it, not because of some consequence if one doesn’t do it. Life isn’t so serious that things are imperative. There may be ‘needs’ in order to ‘accomplish a goal’ (which often feels great), but at the end of the day you know that those goals are fun and part of the joy of life, in the same way as mistakes, failure, rejection, loss and hardship. If you fail it doesn’t mean anything about who-you-are (deep down) or even what-you-can-do. You know that physical life is temporary and ever changing and you can handle anything, be anything, do anything that you set your mind to. So what do you want to do today? That is a mystery to me.
Mindfulness is simple, yet very difficult to achieve. It can make one realize the inner judgements about oneself. If there is self-hatred or scorn, even a little bit we can feel it as sensation in the body after the thought occurs.
If we are to sustain meditation and mindfulness It requires one to know, deep in their bones, that they are okay; that they are complete and perfect, as they are; that they are living the best they can; that every choice they make is the right one for their journey ad will bring its own experiences and 'goodies'; that they are as worthy as any other person and that they are as loved, capable, beautiful and gorgeously human. Everyone is the same, yet paradoxically totally unique - the world depends on unique people, otherwise we may as well be robots or vegetables.
Mindfulness wraps up all of this knowledge in a smiling, knowing observation and appreciation of every experience that you perceive. When we are aware of ourselves in this way, every experience has beauty and every person we meet or situation is acceptable, or even fascinating and enjoyable. This is the essence of unconditional love - to accept, with curiosity and celebration, every experience. To be willing to experience it all!
My job is to help people get to that place of deep knowing that they are perfect, so that they can play with life, mindfully. To help people get past their worries and judgements about themselves and develop mindful confidence.
Why bother being mindful?
Intuition is the most powerful of all wisdom.
Rational thinking is useful in the modern world - it is also fun and interesting, but will send you round in circles, chasing a mystery that can never be solved. We can’t know everything before we take action, we must take action first - play, try, experiment, move, take a risk. As we learn we think. But no amount of thinking will 'add to you' - you are perfect and if you cultivate mindfulness you’ll always be able to tune in and remember that - this is powerful. It is resilience in the face of vulnerability - any shitty or difficult situation you find yourself in can be handled with composure and without depression, rage, terror. When you know you can handle anything you can really start to investigate what you want in life.
The more you practice, the more honest you can be with everyone around you (because you’re not so embarrassed or ashamed of the deeper 'you'when you take time to consciously appreciate it)
Then you start to drop the behaviours, things, and relationships that you don;'t serve or that serve you (or that you dislike)
Then you ATTRACT the people and things you do like.
When we drop the masks and people see us for how we really are is helps us.
The final bit - and the best bit - is that when other people see you doing this it SOMETIMES inspires them to be more accepting of themselves too. It becomes a positive cycle that infects everyone - OK, not everyone! - some people are still predominantly living through the egoic mind, very automatically and they might react very negatively to you. Those are the people that I’ll discuss below:
Ego? Isn't that judgemental? What if this meditation thing just isn't for me?
Well that’s fine too - you’ll carry on living organically, as you always have. Your mind will be influenced by your past wounding (physical and mental) and by the cultural messages around you, as it has been up until this point. You may be completely fine and blissfully ignorant. The point is that if you're not aware you are truly vulnerable to the ravages of judgement, craving and aversion - you’ll be in the illusion of 'control' and the way the mind works you’ll probably be drawn in by the ideas of comfort, security, wealth and popularity, all mixed in with an underlying fear of being rejected, of failing and ultimately of death. These underlying fears can cause the strong negative emotional states of depression or rage.
In me I had a strong sense of hopelessness and a craving to be liked and to show the world a bullshit image of strength and skillfulness. I still do, actually, but I'm more aware and self accepting and so these characteristics have less power over me. Now I find I can CHOOSE how to respond when someone doesn't like me. We might find it difficult to shift these things, but when we accept them they are OK. That goes for illnesses too, most of which are due to stress (inner tension) which has it’s origins in your attitude - how you see the world and what you resist.
Ultimately all of this life will end in death so it really doesn’t matter if you choose to be mindful or not - you’ll carry on living for as long as you do and you’ll either enjoy it or you won’t. If you don’t you’ll probably find you reach some sort of crisis point, which happens to most people, and then eventually you’ll say something like: “why am I being so afraid? What’s wrong with me? Oh fuck it, I’m just going to focus on enjoying my life!” And you will… for a while… until you forget the lesson and repeat the whole cycle of life-pain-acceptance-enjoyment all over again. Probably - that's what I did.
The idea behind mindfulness is that you don’t have to do that - you can balance your life so that you get more of the acceptance-enjoyment and less of the pain. It is a practice to help sustain enjoyment - at least it is for me. I like feeling happy - at peace - the best way for me to sustain that feeling is to have the ability to be at peace in any given situation. The ability to create happiness. I believe mindfulness is one tool that enables us to do that. It is one of the best tools because it is universal - it can be used by anyone and in any situation. It doesn't require changing anything.
It just takes a little effort, a little patience and a little more self awareness than you had in the previous moment. Step by step this is the way to get better at anything, there is no magic quantum leap - this is just changing the way you think, a little at a time.
In Winter 2015 I went to a 10 day silent meditation retreat at the Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation Centre in Hereford. I left on day 5 and here is my tale.
The retreat is free, you are invited to give a donation at the end. They give you a code of ethics at the start and you agree to keep to it. It involves
I also iinitially chose to go because I thought I needed that ‘medicine’. Perhaps, like a course of antibiotics, I should have finished it to fully ‘fix’ some of the issues I have, but I don’t think this is true.
What was my experience?
I arrived at 5pm, dropped my wallet and phone in the glove box of my car. With only an overnight bag, a thermos, water bottle and meditation stool I walked through the ‘male’ entrance and into a large hall with tables and chairs and saw the ‘male registration desk’ straight ahead, with two friendly men sitting at it. I was feeling excited, but earlier in the day I had been nauseous and nervous and full of self-doubt. I registered and dropped my bag off in my room (room number B4 - which seemed ironic - I was staying in Be-fore). I had the room to myself, because my room mate didn’t show up to utilise the second bed. I went back to the registration area, which I also realised was the canteen. The room was full of men on one side and women on the other, all talking away but divided a movable partition wall, which was currently open and we could see the women in the other half of the room. I helped myself to a cup of tea and sat down. I started up a conversation with a young Japanese guy. He was an artist with an interesting tale and he had no prior meditation experience. Some more guys joined us at the table and we talked until 7pm when silence descended. The partition wall was closed off - no more contact with women. We were instructed; No more verbal, physical or gestured contact with each other. We were to maintain ‘noble silence’ and work as if working in isolation. We were to commit to staying the whole ten days.
The routine consisted of waking up early (4am), heading to a large, modern meditation hall where we sat on our assigned floor spaces - women on one side of the hall, men on the other. In fact the whole complex was divided this way, and the men’s side including had a few buildings connected by covered walkways with little gardens - it was a cross between a school and a converted farmstead. In the meditation hall we could choose our own cushions from a large pile, but we weren't allowed to lie down or point our feet out (legs straight). We were told we could stand for short periods but were encouraged to try and maintain position for as long as possible, yet also shift it if we really needed to. We meditated for about 12 hours a day, with breaks for breakfast, lunch and tea. Within the 12 hours we had four blocks of meditation lasting about 3 hours each. Sometimes they allowed meditation in our own rooms during meditation hours but there was at least one hour in each block of time where we had to be in the hall and we received some instruction. At the end of every day we received a long video (the discourse).
Whilst most of the time spent sitting was silent there was some guidance. Within the guidance and the videos we listened to the strange chantings / singing of an Indian man, S.N Goenka. He had some very odd chants and he would repeat instructions over and over again. I found it quite grating at times. Other times it was useful to remind myself of the basic practice. He would reiterate that it was all about the sentiment: “start again, with a calm and equanimous mind”.
EARLY DAYS - THOUGHTS
For the first three days all we did was focus on the breathing and sensations in the area in and below the nostrils. We were to ‘try’ and stay focused and not to get distracted. That’s pretty much the whole practice. The teacher was also available to ask questions - quietly, of course, and one-on-one. This 10 day course was designed to be a practical exercise, rather than a philosophical one - we were here to practice continuously and see what happens. I liked that, but at the same time my mind wanted to think. I tried to keep my mind calm and relatively clear all day long, but after the evening discourse, in bed at night, my mind would be whirring with lots of philosophical debate!
Thoughts and pictures in my mind during the first two days were interesting and I grew to appreciate my mind a lot.Initially I saw things being played out on facebook! My mind was so attuned to facebook it was thinking in that way. Morals of films like Groundhog Day and The Shawshank Redemption was very present in my thoughts too: “Get busy living or get busy dying” popped into my head a lot. Shawshank also had a great quote which really came up, particularly when I was leaving the complex in the morning of day 5. The quote comes from one of the characters, who is set free from prison and is on his way to be reunited with his friend:
“I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain”
Lastly the film Into the Wild had a poignant quote that was present for me: “Happiness is only real when shared” which I was now thinking isn’t true, because here I am, on my own and quite happy plugging away. It seems happiness is always here, waiting for us to enjoy alone or in company.
IMPROVEMENT WITH FOCUS
As time went on and I practiced diligently I realised that I was improving at keeping a calm mind and pulling my focus back to the object of my meditation, throughout physical and mental distractions. The phrases that the teacher said that helped me the most were:
WHEN NOT MEDITATING - IMAGINING
When I was not meditating I was either eating in the mess hall, napping, walking in the grounds or using the bathroom (I showered and brushed my teeth A LOT). During these times I observed things whilst eating and noticed how my mind became busy, because of the visual and physical stimulus. I started assigning funny names to the other meditators, based on their appearance and it was causing me to giggle (a very sweet sensation giggling)… but the teacher told me “this was not in line with the practice - imaginative thinking was only adding fuel to the fire. I should to try to keep my mind quiet.” So giggling or laughing was not permitted - it disturbs the other meditators for a start.
KEEPING THE PEACE
Non-disturbance of others was a big part of the moment to moment practice. I witnessed how others moved carefully and how I preferred those people to the ones who moved loudly and clumsily. So I started moving slowly and carefully. It was an incredible change - i was enjoying every little thing more. Including nature - which because much more beautiful and without the need for meaning or labels to describe the beauty. I was able to just be with it, in pure enjoyment.
All this seemed easy in this place. That’s because everything else was taken care of. All I had to do was follow the rules, do the work and I even got fed and looked after. What started bothering me is that this wasn’t real life. I was thinking that ‘real-life’ is much more difficult and challenging than this and there are all sorts of decisions that need to be made, relationships to engage with, chores and mental work… how was this practice going to help with all that? It didn’t seem to have enough content to do that. This was my mind ‘forgetting’ that this was a retreat, a singular experience, not a whole life ethos - my ego was cleverly creating justification for a way out...
I was also noticing that it was very painful to sit for more than an hour in any one position, especially with the prescriptions about not allowing straight legs on the floor. My knees had strong pain sensations, which were different from other pain sensations in my body. Something in my intuition said “listen to this pain Neil - react - stand up - or you’ll be damaged”. So I did and I decided that the awkward, floor-based positions were not yet for me. I wanted to practice the focusing exercises without the limitation of risking harming my body. I asked the teacher about this and he said “well we are not doctors, so change position if you wish, but the practice is to try not to be distracted and react to sensations, but to focus on the sensations, including pain, one at a time, in order.” I was also noticing other people limping and I began to think “This isn’t physically healthy - people are harming themselves by sitting still in positions that their bodies aren’t used to”. So after three days of putting up with the pain I decided to take a chair and I was able to sit still for hours.
I realised that the only thing stopping me getting more comfortable earlier was that I wanted to try to accept the pain and I thought it was cowardly and weak to get a chair. When I saw others opting for chairs I thought I was better than them. I also thought that they would be missing out on learning. It didn’t take me long to notice that this is a judgmental, arrogant and narcissistic thought pattern - I was really noticing what kind of person I was and what self beliefs I had. Clearly, somewhere within me is a judgement of weakness, which is at the root of my own self-hatred. There and then I simply chose to stop thinking in that way and choose compassion. It’s okay to have weakness; we are all doing our best.
EASY BUT NOT EASY
The practice was now straight forward and I enjoyed the silence and stillness and sensations. I did not enjoy the discourses, singing and teachings from Goenka - It didn’t interest me any more because something within the philosophy were some moral choices, inaccurate scientific observations and use of discouraging or inaccurate language which disagreed with my mind. This made the practice very difficult. So in a way it was easy, but difficult. My mind was the only thing making it difficult.
EXPRESSING THE THOUGHTS- EVENING OF DAY 4
That night I wanted to write - to express something - to put my thoughts down. So I snuck out between evening meditations, to the car, and retrieved my phone. It was super exciting and I loved the thrill. I felt like a secret agent! The adrenaline pumping was a beautiful and intense sensation, which I sat through the next meditation experiencing. That night I wrote until midnight and felt a strong compulsion that I wanted to ‘get busy living’. I knew there would be judgements and I would be missing out on teachings, but I wanted to get back to my important projects and see the people that I loved and to dance and have sex! The only connection I’d had with another living being since being here was with a cheeky Robin who landed on my head! I craved connection.
CHOOSING TO LEAVE
I slept on it. In the morning I meditated for an hour; sensation, observation, enjoying the focus. After meditation I wrote a bit more and made up my mind. It was time to leave. I had a nap before breakfast. I showered and I ate. I saw the Japanese man that I had met at the start and wanted to get his contact details, so I snuck over and spoke to him (which I felt a bit guilty about - I interrupted his silence) but he happily agreed and wished me well.
I spoke to the teacher before leaving and he quickly realised that I was sure about my decision. He was very calm (robot like) and told me there was no need to apologise. I was asked to wait until 8am to leave - once people had started the mid-morning meditation. So I went to the nature area and walking track to wait.
It was 7:45am and there was the most beautiful sunrise. The whole sky was red, the air was still, the ground frosty. It was like a frozen picture and I was slowly moving through it. I was aware of a clear mind. It was utterly beautiful.
When I got into the car I put some Nina Simone on and drove home, smiling and singing some of favourite lyrics: “I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart...” and everything was perfect! I knew that from this moment everything would always be perfect, even if I was ‘wrong’ for leaving, I knew I was just going to enjoy my life. I was heading off to work on what was REALLY important to me and develop disciplines that would allow me to share this with others.
But I don’t think so. I think I’m fine and the technique that they prescribed was an overly simplistic for my whole life. I don’t really want to be like the Buddha, sitting under a tree all my life. I want a balance - calm and chaos - because I recognise that a healthy human being is an emotional being as well as a peaceful being. But at the same time I can see how, in modern life, stillness and awareness are essential to living in a balanced way.
I realise that I am a ‘yes’ person in life, and so, like Jim Carrey in ‘Yes Man’ I am often out of balance - I’m loud and expressive, clumsy and scattered. One of my biggest practices is to tune in and express clear and honest ‘no’s’ to things in life, so that I can choose where to put my attention - into things, people, places and actions that are in line with both my rational values and my heart felt instincts.
I can choose to re-balance and practice more careful mindfulness, more sensitive honesty, more self-enforced focus and discipline. I can’t do all of that by focusing on what I want - you might call it positive thinking, but I’ve learned that this is an art form which opens life up for you. I can only do it by positive focus - on what I do want. Because whenever we say yes to something there is always a natural no to something else. Focusing on what you don’t want only brings more of that. We have to make some things more important than others. In this, we have no choice, otherwise we stagnate and die. Ignorance of yourself, Indecision and dis-honesty with yourself causes me more suffering than anything else.
I go through long spells of distraction away from this choice - the practice is to start again, as often as possible, without self judgment. Just do your best.
Choose to see beauty
One of my favourite philosophers, Alan Watts, says that a human being is just an expression of life/nature. I totally agree, Humans have evolved to have a powerful mind and in doing so the mind is able to conceptualise life and give it meaning and then the mind evolves further and realises the illusion of the self-created meaning and so it can go one of two ways - it can give up trying and die (because it perceives life as a struggle with no point) or it can give up struggling and enjoy life for as long as possible (because it perceives life as beautiful).The latter decision will allow positivity to grow and our species to thrive. The former attitude will lead to suffering, depression and death.
Decide what you are for
In making decisions and facing the consequences with the mind of an emotional being is to consciously remember and remind myself that I am loved and worthy exactly as I am. I have value in just my pure existence - I am gorgeous; I am flawed, I am scared, I make mistakes; I am beautiful in these ways and more. I can choose to accept all of me, because I now totally realise that good and bad are just labels that our mind creates. There is no ‘real’ deeper meaning. This is all just stuff happening and it’s not what you do, but how you do it; what your attitude is and what you choose to believe. And what if I don’t feel a strong yes or a strong no? Then let do nothing and let someone else decide or do something, it matters not, eventually - with some self-awareness you will feel a something, a strong desire. The monks at the Vipassana have chosen that for most of their lives they will meditate and feel the awareness without reacting. My view is that we are all ultimately drawn towards that place too, the closer we get to death. I don’t know what happens after death, but I feel it’s pretty close to what the monks are doing - coming together with themselves. They call it the ultimate enlightenment or Nirvana.
Here’s what I believe - There is no ‘point’ to life. So why bother at all? Well, if you stagnate or commit suicide that will be the ultimate ‘missing out’. You’ll miss everything, all the fun, joy, love, lust, passion, learning, experiences, pain, ecstasy, sadness, heartache, excitement, fear, horror, peace, magic, connection and inspiration… I’ll pick one and go with it and my imagination with create the magic. I'm finding my own path as I walk.
Positive lessons I learned:
Life is beautiful. I’m enough - I’m perfect as I am. My mind attaches ‘meaning’ to things and that is the only thing that makes it ‘right/good’ or ‘wrong/bad’. Life is just a bunch of stuff happening and we are lucky enough to have minds with vivid imaginations to create. Or more eloquently put by Shakespeare:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Balance in life is important so it’s important to stop once in a while, make sure that I know what my priorities are and adjust accordingly. I need hardship, stillness, focus and work as much as I need play, being, relaxation and excitement. Any choice I make is the right choice for me as long as I make it from a place of love and wisdom, not fear. I can choose to think and do anything and I recognise the fundamental important things to me are human connection, expression and support. An easy barometer for decision making is to decide if I am drawn to it - if I like it and if it is inline with my values.
So here is an easy list of stuff I specific events and stuff I learned:
What I disliked and disagreed with?
Many, but at the same time, none that hold strong emotional charge around. The course was designed very intelligently and I realise now, with hindsight, that I allowed one of my core ‘monkey-mind’ traits to convince me that leaving was the best choice. That trait was fear of missing out, or FOMO.
I allowed my mind to jump in and rationalise the whole philosophy behind the course and use it as an excuse to justify my leaving. I see the fallacy in my own disagreements about the philosophies within the course. I wish the course had stated more clearly that it is a course, not a routine to follow your whole life. It is an experience to provide contrast for your life. It is to help cultivate control of your own mind so that you can make calm, informed choices throughout difficult times and you can choose, in every moment, what you put your attention on and what you even think about. Then the moral choices will be much easier.
At the end of the day all of these are excuses. I didn’t do the full work and now I have missed a rare opportunity to do that work in a single week. It means I will now have to weave that work into my life, organically, gradually and with some effort, with a weaker starting point than I could have had completed. If I had sat the whole 10 days I would be re-entering life with a stronger and more controlled mind and in some ways it would be easier to continue to carry forward into my life.
However, I cannot be certain this is true. Leaving is a unique experience that has brought it’s own goodies and experiences. Right now I have lots of ‘bonus’ days-off to sit and contemplate, talk with mature and experienced friends, reflect and decide upon what I liked, learned, disliked, regretted and now committed to do in my life. So like all things it is even possible to accept my regrets, to choose not to worry and to beat myself up, to take positives from the experience forward into my life. I still feel good about the experience and the choice to leave. Tomorrow do thy worst, for today I have lived, fully.
Conclusion and practical bits
I feel emotionally sad that I broke my commitment and all that it means I miss out on some learning experience (but I got others instead) and it highlight my weaknesses. At the same time I feel at peace and happy to be alive, with loved ones and freedom to choose how to spend my limited time. It’s great to be here!
By having the time to write this and work out how to integrate what I’ve learnt into my life, whilst the information is still fresh, is invaluable. I have chosen to:
I’ve come to realise is that there is no universal truth - they are all true and important - universal nature is full of harmony and paradox, but nature requires us to make a decision as to what is important in this moment and then focus upon that. I believe that for my journey, in this moment, decisiveness and balance are important for me to focus upon - and my balance includes sometimes getting over excited - which is great as long as one remembers that nature also requires calm.
S.N. Goenka - Dhamma Discourses
S.N. Goenka standard sound of 1 hour meditation
The power of meditation - as shown in prisons
The Dangers of Meditation
Cold Shower therapy
And Some Quotes:
..“Krishnamurti says to people, ‘Now look, there is nothing you can do to be liberated because all of your efforts in the direction of liberation are phony. They are based on your desire to boost and continue your ego and that will never lead to liberation. All you can do,’ he says, ‘is to be aware of yourself as you are without judgement. See What IS.’ but, then, if you can do that, you have no further problem. But, if you try to do it you’re in the same mess all over again….
And, when you find out, you see, there isn’t any way of forcing it, that, for most people is the only way of getting them to stop forcing it. Because they won’t believe, when you tell them in the first instance, ‘You’ve got to do this without forcing it.’ They’ll say, ‘Well, it won’t work. It won’t happen because I’m very unevolved. I’m just an ordinary human being. I’m just poor little me. And, if I don’t force it, nothing will happen. Like people who think that if they don’t struggle and strain they won’t have a bowel movement or whatever it is. They think they’ve got to do that work in order to make it happen.
“In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself."
– The Dalai Lama, quoted in Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French
Neil Morbey is a meditation teacher, group facilitator and inspiration guide for Positively-Mindful.com