Acknowledging the stillness within

Acknowledging the stillness within

Mindfulness and Stillness

Mindfulness is often seen as an activity in which stillness takes precedence. Perhaps, however, there might be two ways of looking at this stillness.

On the one hand, physical stillness is a very calming thing. Allowing our body to have some degree of quietude allows our minds to become more still too. This is the prevalent way of ‘being’ during formal meditations – gently taking up a sitting or lying position that is relatively easy to maintain for at least the next few minutes, if not an hour or more. Although we might experience some degree of discomfort during that time, for the most part, we can bring our awareness to whatever we choose, whether inside of us (thoughts, feelings, sensations) or outside of us (sounds, situations). During a guided formal meditation, our attention is often brought back to a focus by the one who is leading the session. Often, we find it easier to be still when someone is guiding us.

This kind of still meditation is a method we can use in order to become more mindful of the present moment.

Allowing Stillness into Our Lives

Sometimes, however, we can struggle with allowing this stillness into our busy lives. We are so used to being on the go all the time that being anything like still and quiet seems completely alien to us, and often impossible when we have schedules to run to. We have become human doings instead of human beings! Having to be on the go all the time.

However, there are also ways in which, as we allow mindfulness into our lives and practice it more and more regularly, we can train ourselves to recognise this stillness even amidst the busiest and most hectic of times.

Improved Cognitive Understanding

We learn that we can recognise our thought processes more and more, and not become so entwined in reacting to things to which we don’t need to react. With this kind of cognitive understanding, we learn that our thoughts are not who we are – they are simply our thoughts. And, as our thoughts change from moment to moment, so too can our approach to any situation. Could we not recognise that, perhaps (at least sometimes) what our thoughts make of the world are to do with a way of thinking that is a little more negative than what reality is actually showing us? And when we acknowledge this, does that not put us in rather more control of any given situation than we’d previously thought?

Visualising Our Thoughts

It is sometimes said that if we see our thoughts high up above us – for example, floating like clouds across the sky, or printed onto helium-filled balloons in our imagination, then it might be easier to put a little distance between who we are and those thoughts.

In a more formal setting, we can picture the embodiment of our everyday experience as a lake – the surface often gets disturbed by things that happen to us but we can also imagine the vast body of water below the surface which remains completely still and peaceful, unperturbed by any external events.

It is this stillness that is always within us, somewhere deep down. Somewhere, perhaps, that we often find difficult to acknowledge but is always there none-the-less.

Mindfulness can help us to acknowledge that simple stillness within.

Rachel Broomfield, Mindfulness teacher and trainer

Mindfulness and pain reduction

All in the mind? – Opening ourselves up to a different approach

Medical research suggests that we can use our mind and our mind/body connection to be aware of painful feelings as they arise and to, in effect, stop struggling with them. When we use our mind to become aware, as in mindfulness practice, then something unusual happens. We begin to start a gentle observation of something (painful sensation) rather than being wrapped up in, and/or fighting it.

With a little practice, something very special begins to happen. We notice that the pain may start to dissolve, as if by magic! People who have experienced this for the first time are frequently amazed and begin to appreciate how doing something a little different can open the door to a new realisation that pain comes in two varieties, primary and secondary, which both stem from different origins.

Primary pain, as the name suggests arises from a physical incident of some sort which produces the pain, whether that is illness, injury, surgery or other medical treatment. It could be thought of as the body’s reaction to this incident. Secondary pain, or suffering, closely follows and is concerned with our reaction, at a conscious and subconscious level, to the primary pain.

Pain Reduction

Pain is a warning that something is wrong with the body. It is therefore irresponsible and unethical to remove pain unless we can be sure that the pain is symptomatic of a non-threatening or serious illness. In reality, how can we ever be sure of this? It is therefore preferable the help the Client to reduce, rather than remove pain and to enable the Client to have a degree of control over the intensity of pain.

Pain is a complex phenomenon and much mystery still surrounds just how it ‘works’.

The ‘gate control theory’ of pain is based upon the principle that when our nerve cells are stimulated by injury or disease – ie potentially painful stimuli – the message is transmitted to the brain. Along the way, at the spinal column and in different areas of the brain, the information is interpreted and acted upon.

Touching a hot stove results in a reflex action that causes your hand to pull back faster than the message took to reach the brain. But if you burnt your hand, then the continuing pain is ‘analysed’ in the brain – and experienced as a dull ache or a sharp twinge or whatever. In another part of the brain, the degree of discomfort is registered and appropriate action taken.

Psychological therapies including clinical hypnosis seem to have the effect of being able to separate the various ‘interpreting regions’ so that the level of discomfort can be modified, for example. Distraction, visualisation and NLP are three methods of achieving pain reduction in this way.

When working to achieve pain—relief it is sensible to allow some discomfort to remain, especially in cases of chronic suffering, where it serves to remind you of the underlying condition. The aim is to reduce the level of discomfort. Establishing a scale of pain in your imagination – varying from 10, the worst imaginable pain, to 1, pain-free – and deciding on where the Client’s level of pain lies and comparing this ‘reading’ before and after some therapy, will help you to assess the success of the practice.

The Buddha, The Arrow Sutta

This teaching is often summarized as “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” We have in life two forms of distress in life. The first arises from the unavoidable events that occur in life: the pains, insults, rejections, losses, separations, ageing, sickness and on. Such events quickly give rise to inevitable, uncomfortable physical expressions, such as feeling that the wind knocked out of us, a hollowness in the chest, a tight stomach, dizziness, tears, etc. The second form of distress lies in our thought based reactions to the event: “Why me? This is unfair. How do I change this? What will happen now?” We add more anguish to the mix by taking universal experiences personally, trying to escape the unavoidable.

These optional, second arrows of torment can -play out in different ways:

  1. We can blame and denounce others for shooting us with those first arrows [their rejections, insults, dismissals, wrongs of all varieties] and feel picked on by the universe.
  2. We can castigate and condemn ourselves for being human and not avoiding life’s inescapable disappointments, reaching the conclusion we are particularly damaged or fated to misery.
  3. We can chase short-term distractions and pleasures: stuffing our feelings with food, retail therapy, deluging ourselves in work, seeking refuge in television or sex, drugs and alcohol…

All of these approaches distract us until they eventually let us down. No matter how much we blame ourselves or others or keep ourselves busy, the discomforts we’ve been avoiding and abandoning resurface; from high-flying financiers to destitute heroin addicts, whatever diversionary tactics we choose will wear thin and return us to emotional conditions of vulnerability, loss, emptiness. No matter how much we’ve been sweeping under the rug, we will have to face the challenging feelings from which we’ve been hiding.

The spiritual solution is to put aside the distractions and to attend to the uncomfortable feelings directly after being hit with those first arrows. How does it feel to be fired? dumped? rejected? abandoned? Not good, but if we hold the sensations in our awareness, it turns out they’re not as overwhelming as we thought; with compassion and care the body softens, the mind becomes less agitated, the impressions arise and pass. It turns out we can survive being hit by an arrow, so long as we don’t shoot too many into ourselves in return.

How to learn more

Please follow this link to a one-day CPD training which The UK College – Mindfulness Now is presenting on Saturday 8th July 2017

Mindful Walking

Most people think of mindfulness within the confines of sitting still for a period of time. But, in fact, carrying out mindfulness when walking can be incredibly beneficial. We regularly undertake a brief walking meditation during our mindfulness teaching sessions, when members of the group are encouraged to be fully aware of their bodies and/or breathing while doing this simple movement. So, like all mindfulness exercises, this is about awareness.

As is often the case, people are somewhat surprised to find what a different sort of experience this presents to them. Being completely and fully aware of our bodies when doing something we usually do without a second thought can be enlightening. When you are moving it’s often easier to become aware of your body than it is when sitting still for a period of time. And many opportunities arise each day when a brief walking meditation can take place.

Normally we don’t walk without intention – we are walking to get somewhere or our intention may be to seek pleasure. Here we aim to let go of all intention other than awareness. We may notice ourselves either enjoying or disliking our walking. We may be cold, we may be wet, or we may feel exhausted. On the other hand, we may feel completely happy and full of energy! Whatever we notice is OK – we’re not trying to change anything.

So, how do our feet feel against the changing surfaces we walk on? What do we notice about the differing shades of colours we encounter? How does the air feel against our skin? Is it cool, or warm or breezy or still? What sounds are we aware of and how do those sounds change as we walk along? Do the sounds of our own walking change as the walking surface changes? Does the pace of our walking change?

As you walk, scan through the physical sensations in your body, starting with the soles of your feet and all the way up to the top of your head. Take time to notice sensations in all parts of your body. Then notice sensations in your body, as a whole.

Now we might like to bring a little intention to our walking – by walking and smiling. This walking and smiling practice is recommended by world-famous mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and is all about generating positive feelings for yourself as you walk. So… walk as if you’re the happiest person on earth. Smile – you’re alive! Acknowledge that you’re very fortunate if you’re able to walk. As you walk in this way, imagine you are printing peace and joy with every step you take. Walk as if you’re kissing the earth with each step you take. Know that you’re taking care of the earth by walking in this way.

Every now and then, when you see a beautiful tree, flower, lake, or anything else you like, stop and look at it. Continue to follow your breathing as you do this. Allow each step to refresh your body and mind. Realise that life can only be lived in the present moment. Enjoy your walking.

So next time you’re getting up to put the kettle on, walking from the car to the shop, or walking along the beach on holiday or around the local park, just simply slow down a little and notice what’s going on – what is your breathing doing and has it changed? – what are your muscles doing and how do they feel? – are you brave enough to take your shoes off and feel the sand between your toes or the grass beneath your feet? Remember that the purpose of a walking meditation is to be fully in the present moment, letting go of any anxieties and worries; letting go of any intention. Simply being fully aware.

Rachel Broomfield, Mindfulness teacher and trainer

5 ways to be more mindful every day!

Think of the time you ate your lunch today or yesterday. Did you stop to look at the colours and shades in your food? Did you notice it’s aroma? Were you aware of the texture and taste of the food in your mouth as you slowly chewed? Were you aware of how it felt to swallow the food? What aftertaste was there?

One of the attitudes of mindfulness, beginner’s mind offers us the chance to really slow down, ‘smell the coffee’ and start to appreciate everyday activities with new eyes, new senses, almost as if for the first time. And each and every time we do this, we’re applying what we have learned in our formal meditation practice (the time we take just to sit or lie and practice meditation) to our everyday activities. The formal practice is about learning to pay attention to whatever is going on in our mind, body and the world around us, moment by moment, in a non-judgemental, kindly and gentle way. We can then take this focused attention into our normal everyday lives, bringing a full awareness to our experience of the world and the ways in which we interact with it.

Often we spend much of our time lost in thought, rushing around from one activity to another, and often trying to do several different things at the same time. This constant busyness is at the root cause of much of our unhappiness, anxiety and exhaustion. However, we can switch over from this doing mode of mind into a gentler, more peaceful being mode. We can do this through practising everyday ‘informal’ mindfulness. Our lives offer numerous opportunities for this type of everyday mindfulness practice. Here are just five ways of doing it:

1. First thing

As you wake up, rather than immediately opening your eyes why not keep them closed for a short while and spend a little while just noticing your breathing. Not trying to change your breathing but just being aware as you let this awareness extend to the sensations in your body – and then outside your body – how does the duvet feel around you and the pillow beneath your head? What does the bed linen smell like? What sounds are you aware of from indoors and out? Just spend a little while really noticing as much as you can – spending a few moments before you get up. Gradually open your eyes and slowly take in everything you can see.

2. Wake up and smell the coffee

The say that a watched kettle does not boil but you may just discover that if you are mindful enough, it actually does! Why not make a mindful experience out of preparing and enjoying a cup of coffee. If you grind the beans, notice the feel of some coffee beans in your hand, smell them and drop them into the grinder. Listen to the sound of the grinder and then smell the ground beans. How do they differ from the un-ground ones?

Notice what it is like to fill the kettle and watch and listen as it boils. Pour the boiling water through the coffee and watch and smell as it percolates. Eventually watch and smell the filtered coffee as you pour it into your cup. It may just be the best cup of coffee you have ever tasted!

3. Travelling to work

If you are travelling by bus or train to work, rather than reading or looking at your phone why not just take the time to really notice everything around you. See it all as if through beginner’s eyes – as if it was all for the first time. Notice the movement, the smells and sounds around you. If you feel comfortable with this, and are not in danger of missing your stop, why not close your eyes for a while and just explore all the sounds that come into your awareness. It can be a very different experience.

4. Another kind of listening

The next time you are having a conversation at work why not make it a very different kind of experience. One where you really listen to what the other person has to say rather than concentrating on your own internal thought stream. Try avoiding that tendency to think about your response in advance, while the other person is still speaking! Try being more attentive than normal to the other person’s conversation, in a non-judgemental and empathic way. Watch the other person’s body language and learn from it.

5. During your working day

Whatever your day is like why not take just a few moments every now and again to take a few mindful breaths, even if it is just noticing one breath, it can have a really beneficial effect, slowing you momentarily and allowing you to enter being mode, even if it is for a few brief moments!

Maybe you could set a few reminders for yourself at regular intervals during the day, no matter how busy you are to briefly switch off from relentless doing and just be aware in the present moment. The rest of your day is likely to be so much more productive as a result.

Notice how helpful it can be by introducing a few informal mindfulness practices into your daily life you can learn to trigger your mind/body’s relaxation response and let go of unhelpful and potentially harmful stress. If you start with just one practice you are likely to be tempted to do much more.

By Nick Cooke

Compassion – the key to happiness

In today’s world, anyone might think that gaining material possessions is the key to happiness. Adverts on the television, at the cinema, at bus stops, on the internet constantly tell us that all we need to do is buy this appliance, get that product, wear these clothes or eat this food and we’ll have the perfect life and live happily ever after. But once we buy whatever they’re selling, we’re then told we need the latest version, an upgrade or the most up to date fashion – then we’ll be happy! And so it goes on… And if you can win the lottery, well that would be your life sorted forever, surely?!

So make sure you’re in a position to buy and have whatever you want, then you’ll be happy.

Or will you?

Research actually suggests that it’s not in what we receive that we have the most happiness but actually in what we give. As long as our basic needs are met and we are able to live relatively comfortably, then very little after that counts.

MRI scans show that those parts of the brain that are responsible for feeling pleasure when we receive things are equally active when we give, if not more so.

If we suffer symptoms of anxiety and depression, it often points to the fact that we are focusing a lot of our thoughts on ourselves, and usually negatively – what has happened already or what we think might happen in the future; everything that has gone wrong or might go wrong. When we start to shift a little of the focus towards others and what we might be able to do for them then our perceived levels of happiness and well-being actually increase.

Even doing a very simple act of kindness, for example, letting someone in front of you in the line of traffic, holding a door open for the person that’s following, or even smiling at a stranger as you pass them by in the street can have an effect – by carrying out these simple acts you’re putting someone else first; another way to think of it is that you’re showing them a very basic level of love and compassion.

And we all want to be loved, do we not?

And someone else putting us first helps us to feel this. In the same way, when we put someone else first it makes us feel good – no matter how small that act of kindness might be.

A favourite mindfulness meditation is called Loving Kindness. This involves a focus, firstly, on ourselves, offering ourselves a little love, good health and well-being. Sometimes we forget how important we are in our own lives! Then the focus shifts gently to someone we love, again offering them some loving thoughts in our imagination. After this we are asked to focus our attention on someone whom we have perhaps seen that day but don’t know very well – perhaps someone who served us at the shop or someone we saw at the bus stop. Again, we attend to them in our thoughts wishing them well in health and happiness. And lastly, and perhaps this is the most difficult part of the meditation, we offer those same loving thoughts and good wishes to someone whom we perhaps have difficulty with, offering them the same compassion we did with ourselves and our loved ones.

In this way, through a very simple meditation practice, we perform a very gentle form of ‘self-psychotherapy’ in which some kind of healing may take place.

So, compassion may just be the key to happiness!

By Rachel Broomfield