contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: mindfulness

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

CRAVING THROUGH BUDDHIST EYES

“We are learning to unbind the mind from the grip of craving”, according to the teachers of my course on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths (1). The problem about unbinding the mind, they acknowledge, is that we usually can’t do it as a simple act of will. Going that way, we can end up at war with ourselves.

The purpose of practices like meditation, in this context, is to create a mental landscape that favours awareness and understanding. The craving impulse is likely tied to an underlying discontent – something wrong, or lacking, or missing. Through practice, we learn to create moments of pause in which we’re “sensitized to the impulse” of moving towards or away from bundles of feelings, thoughts, images and desires. As part of this increased awareness, we may learn to tolerate discontent, rather than automatically attempting to solve it. During such discontent, a question in the Zen tradition asks: ‘what in this moment is truly lacking?’. We may find ourselves discovering a sensitivity, kindness or capacity for gladness that begins to address our sense of lack and to calm the craving.

Going a little deeper, we can look at mythologies in our lives that tell us, ‘if only I had X, I would be happy’. This includes material objects and conditions, but also expectations of other people, in which we make them responsible for our happiness. We learn to identify our own habitual patterns built on assumptions of this kind We also learn to hold the tension of unfulfilled craving – whether because we don’t get what we want, or because we do get we want and remain unsatisfied. This in turn allows us better to understand the pay-offs, or lack thereof, of satisfying cravings. A different kind of strategy is to “acknowledge how much good stuff we have experienced and how much pleasure we have experienced”.

I notice that this discussion is highly psychologized and reflects the marriage of modern psychology and modern Buddhism with ‘mindfulness’ as their offspring. In a sense, we are witnessing a new kind of Buddhism. I have now read translations of some early Indian texts. Although the teachers of my Four Noble Truths course are versed in these texts and loyal to them, the cultural feeling tone – to me – seems vastly different. I would read from them that the real cause of suffering is being born at all. This is again different from the marriage of Taoism and Buddhism in China, birthing Chan (and subsequently Zen in Japan). Here the focus is on breaking out of a prison – of conventional language, thinking and identity –  for the encounter with ‘original face’.

So, behind the immediate concern with the Four Noble Truths (or ennobling tasks) there is another inquiry, concerned with what Buddhism (or post Buddhist Dharma) will look like as it becomes indigenized in the West, especially North America as the centre of gravity for these developments. When a new culture adopts an exotic religion, it will inevitably change it. This is happening now in the case of Western Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths course sheds valuable light on the evolution spiritual cultures as well as on how to deal (my own words) with a bitter sweet poignancy at the heart of life.

(1) This course is concerned with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, re-framed as four ennobling tasks. It is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

 

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

MAKING PERSONAL VOWS

On Monday I completed a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course (1). It was not strictly Buddhist, but the teachers and all the participants were sufficiently Buddhist influenced to have had existing experience of both of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices. At the same time I believe that the overall approach can offer something for anyone concerned with the issues addressed.

One of these is making and living with vows. In this context, we make the vows to ourselves and there are two key criteria. The first is that the vow anchors an intention, rather than operating as a binding contract. The second is that vows flow out of our core values. Hence, we need to get clear about these values before making any vows.

The process for checking core values is a simple one. Bringing warm-hearted awareness to ourselves and our experience, we imagine being near the end of our lives and looking back. We ask ourselves what has given us the deepest satisfaction, joy and contentment. What values did we embody that gave our life meaning? In other words, what core values were expressed in our lives? Possible examples given by the people who developed the MSC programme are: compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature.

Having done this, we select a core value that we would like to manifest for the rest of our lives and write it in the form of a vow. In the construction of the vow, ‘May I …’ language is recommended. This strengthens a kind of commitment which is about working towards, and deepening into, the expression of the core value, rather than getting tied up in a drama of binary obedience/disobedience.

When making my own vows, I found it good to remember that they are personal and not set in concrete. They can be further changed and developed – or even dropped, if they cease to sit well. They are tools rather than rules. With the two below, I found that care with language was key to the credibility of the vow. Worded to be both simple and demanding, such vows can allow for degrees of fulfilment, and provide a kind of coaching.

May I be loving and compassionate in my personal interactions

Mindful Self-Compassion begins with ‘self’ but doesn’t – and couldn’t meaningfully – stop there. One of its merits is to resource loving-kindness and compassion to others and in the wider world. It is a preventative measure against cold charity and compassion fatigue. In the context of this vow, loving-kindness and compassion are specific terms. Loving-kindness is a basic stance of positive regard, not necessarily fuelled by natural empathy or emotion beyond a basic inclination to warmth. Compassion is loving-kindness in a situation where the other person or being is suffering. MSC, and the wider culture of Buddhist lovingkindness, provide working methods that include being kind to ourselves when we struggle with the stance of loving-kindness and compassion towards others. In working with this vow, I am not dependent on factors like self-image or passing sentiment. I have practices to support me in making the vow meaningful.

May I experience abundance in simplicity

This vow depends on a dance between two qualities that might be thought of as pulling in opposite directions. To the extent I might experience a tension myself, I am challenged to develop my understanding both of ‘abundance’ and of ‘simplicity’. One synthesis, an important one, finds a path through living lightly on the Earth as a personal witness in the face of world-pillaging and climate crisis. There’s a set of lifestyle choices to be made here, finding riches within apparent frugality. But for immediate experience, I go straight to simplicity. By this I mean slowing down, and opening to the simple now. I immerse myself in the texture of what is abundantly here and freely given. I look out of my window at late summery yellow-green ivy … abundance-in-simplicity comes in and sits on my shoulders. The point of the vow is to remind me of the miracle of being alive and to open me more fully to the gift.

(1) https://centerformsc.org/

POEM: THE JOURNEY

This poem by Mary Oliver is included in the material for my Mindful Self-Compassion course. I wonder how many readers feel some resonance with it.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations……

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

HERE-AND-NOW STONE

I am carefully sitting in a balance of warmth and shade. In the palm of my right hand is a small sandy brown stone. My four fingers are gently folded over it, the thumb resting beside them, unobtrusively pointing out. The stone is a good fit and the texture relatively smooth, with just enough variation to offer tactile interest. This is a pleasing stone to hold, as it exchanges warmth with my friendly hand. I feel in relationship with this stone, most likely collected from a beach though I don’t know when and where.

I am doing this as part of a formal exercise – you might think, a Druid one. I can recall ones very like it. But in this case, it is linked to a Mindful Self Compassion programme, research based but with an explicitly Buddhist inspiration. I’m asked to enjoy the stone. After some time I open my hand and gaze at the subtle variations in colour, and a dusting of tiny white crystalline spots. I pick the stone up and rub it against my skin. There’s just enough roughness in the contact to generate a real aliveness.  The taste is slightly salty. I am thoroughly engaged with the stone.

The framers of the exercise link this combination of focus and appreciation with coming home to the present moment, a place with no room for regret or worry, past or future. Their recommendation, going forward, is to keep the stone in my pocket, or somewhere handy. Then, whenever I feel swept up in hurt feelings or distracted ones, I can take myself back home by rubbing the stone with my fingers. I am sure that this is true and I will begin using it this way. Overnight, it can be the first stone on my Guanyin altar.

I also believe that my Druid background adds value. If I treat this action purely as a psychological exercise, it might come to seem a little calculated and Pavlovian. In my universe, I am entering a relationship with an entity from the mineral kingdom, receiving a gift, and hopefully offering one too. I believe that this understanding will add power, beauty and magic to an apparently simple activity.

MINDFULNESS MUST BE ENGAGED

Social action: what to do and how to do it. An issue for any spiritual community ….

“When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both – to go out to help people, and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

“We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, then many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?”

Thich Nhat Hanh Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in daily life London: Rider, 1995

BOOK REVIEW: ZEN FOR DRUIDS

jhp574843867221aIn this user-friendly book, Joanna van der Hoeven further develops ideas already present in her earlier ones, especially Zen Druidry. On my reading, this book will work best for Druids committed to a modern eco-spirituality. I imagine readers already re-enchanted by their experience of the natural world, who want a harmonious relationship with that world, and to honour, protect and preserve it. Zen for Druids confirms this stance and adds something else: the interwoven ethical and attentional training of the Buddhist tradition.

The author draws specifically on Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master who founded the Community of Interbeing and is a leading model and exponent of ‘engaged Buddhism’. This cultivates personal, social and ecological levels of awareness. It recognizes the radical interdependence of all beings and a need to make ethical/political choices in line with this interdependence. Such Buddhism is not in any way world denying, in the way that Buddhist tradition has at times been in the past. I see Thich Nhat Hanh as a perfect source of influence for this book, and several of his own works are cited in the bibliography.

Zen for Druids is divided into five parts. The first is a clear exposition of Buddhist basics, helped by that tradition’s own style of clear exposition and list making. It includes chapters on the three treasures, the four noble truths, the five basic precepts for lay Buddhists, the eightfold path and the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. By age-old Buddhist design, there is a certain amount of repetition in these lists, with the same issues coming up again in slightly different contexts. Each individual chapter ends with a set of questions designed to engage the reader in their own reflections.

The second part moves through the eightfold wheel of the year, frequently found as a festival year in Druid and Pagan communities. Each festival is given its own chapter, and each chapter combines traditional Druid and Pagan themes with a principle from the Buddhist eightfold path. The author starts at Samhain (right effort), moves on to the Winter Solstice (right mindfulness), Imbolc (right concentration), Spring Equinox (right intention), Beltane (right view), Summer Solstice (right action), Lughnasadh (right speech) and the Autumn Equinox (right livelihood). Each section is followed by a list of suggestions for practice.

The book’s remaining three parts are shorter. They concern, respectively, meditation, mindfulness and integration. In two chapters on meditation, the first explores ‘mind traps’ – “those little prisons of our own making. We are constantly hijacked by our thoughts and feelings, attachments to them and our egos, such that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down”. The second shows us to how do a brief meditation session in the Zen manner. The following section, concerning mindfulness in the world, suggests a practice of ‘mindful Mondays’ and explores the relationship between present time awareness and an animist world view. The final section, on integration, focuses on our integration with nature, looking at the issue of ‘ego, self and identity’ before reflecting on ‘awen and relationship’. For Joanna van der Hoeven, indeed, “awen is relationship and integration, the connecting threads that bind us soul to soul”.

In Zen for Druids, one Druid shows how she has taken an iteration of Zen Buddhism into her life and practice, combining them into one path. She sets out her stall very clearly and offers the reader specific opportunities and resources for practice and reflection. This book does a valuable job well.

Joanna van der Hoeven Zen for Druids: a further guide to integration, compassion and harmony with nature Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2016

AWE, HEALTH & MINDFULNESS

Good news for Druids, I think, and for all followers of life-affirming paths. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Emotion (1) suggests that “the feeling of awe we may experience during encounters with art, nature and spirituality has an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the body from chronic disease”. The researchers found a correlation between feelings of awe and lower levels of cytokines, markers that put the immune system on high alert by triggering a defensive reaction known as inflammation. While inflammation is essential to fighting infection and disease when the body is presented with a specific threat, chronically high levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune conditions.

Dacher Keltner, a member of the research team, defines ‘awe as’ being “in the upper reaches of pleasure, on the border of fear”. She says the finding that “awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions -– a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy” (2).

Meanwhile other studies have shed light on the relationship between awe and mindfulness, seen as two of the core elements of many spiritual traditions. Here, awe is defined as a “feeling of fascination and amazement invoked by an encounter with something larger than ourselves that is beyond our ordinary frameworks of understanding”. In one experiment the researchers recruited 64 undergraduate participants to view and respond to a number of images. All of participants were shown two sets of images: one set of images was used to inspire awe (the Grand Canyon, majestic mountains, a view of the Earth from space) while the others were meant to inspire feelings of positivity (kittens, flowers, baby chicks), and asked to rate their awe and positivity responses on a scale of 1 to 7. Prior to viewing the images, half of the participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness audio tape, while the other half listened to non-mindfulness control audio. The participants who took part in the brief mindfulness exercise experienced a greater awe reaction than the control group in response to the awe-provoking images.

University of Groningen psychologist Dr. Brian Ostafin , quoted in Huffpost Science (3), theorises quite generously from this limited data that  “you can’t digest [the object of awe] with your cognitive structures — it’s too big for you. So there’s a need for accommodation, to change your mental structures to understand what that is. This is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions. … And mindfulness is a little bit about that too, because you’re paying attention and exercising non-conceptual awareness, so you should be more open to the immensity that’s there. You step out of the small frame that you have and this small idea of what the world is… You’re not stuck in your own story … When we practice mindfulness (the cultivation of a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment), we’re more able to open our mind to make sense of new experiences”.

This research is indicative rather than conclusive, especially it seems to me in the case of the Groningen study.  The research design there seems to me to be based on the offer of rather modest doses of mindfulness and somewhat modest opportunities for awe. Yet there was a real difference in the reported experiences of the mindfulness participants and the control group – so something at least is being suggested about states of attention and experienced quality of response. I find it heartening that this kind of research is going on and intend to keep an eye on it as part of my inquiry.

(1) Stellar, Jennifer E. (et al) Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discreet positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines Emotion Vol 15 (2), April 2015, 129-133

(2) Caroline Gregoire Experiences of Art, Nature, and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease, Study Finds Huffpost Science, 5 Feb 2015, updated 2 April.

(3) Caroline Gregoire How Meditation Primes the Mind for Spiritual Experiences Huffpost Science 3 January 2015, updated 1 March 2015

HEARTFULNESS & EMBODIMENT

I decided to kindle a Mindfulness 101 book* and do a spot check out how far my own practice meets ‘mindfulness’ criteria as currently understood. I was glad to find – as a wayward intuitive Druid – that I still seem to be incorporating the essential principles. I especially enjoyed the comment: “Ask someone from Tibet where their mind is and they may point to their chest – the word for mind and heart in Tibetan, and many other eastern languages, is the same. When we practice mindfulness, we’re recalibrating our centre downwards – as such, the practice might better be described as ‘heartfulness’ or even ‘bodyfulness’.” On this reading mindfulness becomes “an open hearted awareness of what’s happening, and learning from what we find” so that something which in English sounds like a quality of thinking in fact brings us down from our heads and into our whole bodies. Body sensations are driven at a deeper level than thought, which is why we can’t change how we feel simply be thinking about it. “By bringing attention to sensations within the body … we work with them more skilfully.”

My personal practice includes devotional, energetic and meditative elements with the meditative slightly more emphasised than the others. It includes a review of body, senses, life energy, feelings, thoughts and images. It also includes a period of either breath meditation or ‘choiceless awareness’. All of these elements are in the mindfulness book. What re-assured me most was the implicit validation of my recent choice of Duidsg mo chridhe/dooshk mo chree (awaken my heart) as an affirmation and reminder phrase during this period. This phrase comes from a Ceile De Fonn, and called to me strongly when I chose it. I’d already thought of ‘heartfulness’ as my preferred term for an awakened state – a fuller, more spacious and generous kind of presence than is conveyed to me by the term mindfulness itself. So I liked getting synchronous support from a book about mindfulness practice.

* Ed Halliwell Mindfulness: how to live well by paying attention Hay House Basics

Information about the Ceile De is available on http://www.ceilede.co.uk

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