‘You can practice mindfulness because there is forgetfulness but you cannot practice awareness, because there is only awareness’…

Dear friends

I have had occasion this weekend to have another look at one of my favourite all time books ‘Grace and Grit’ by Treya Killam Wilber and  Integral Theorist Ken Wilber. It is a magnificent story of romance, healing, life and death. When I did a search on the book to see what had been written about it I learned that a film is in production, with Jennifer Aninston in the lead role. Apparently she and Brad Pitt used to read sections of it to each other. I am not sure who is playing the leading man though.

I also found a clip of Ken reading from the book, saying he hadn’t spoken publicly of her death since she died in 1989 and he apologized in advance for ending up a ‘blubbering mess’.

https://www.integrallife.com/video/grace-and-grit-tale-love-loss-and-liberation

177175

When I read the book previously – perhaps 3 times over the last 20 years or so I didn’t focus on her use of the word ‘mindfulness’, or how she used it because it wasn’t my focus then and it certainly wasn’t in the zeitgeist like it is now. I had had my own experience of loss around the first time I read it and I guess I was interested in how a real life story that wasn’t  blaming or victim-oriented or sentimental or New Agey.

What I always loved about this book was its honesty, its location of meditation within daily life with its joys and challenges and the focus on a woman’s voice and experience.  Just today I was researching something else and came across a slide show

http://www.slideshare.net/kguent/linkedin-mindfulness-presentation summarising the development of mindfulness, see slide 2 below.

modern-mindfulness-2-728

Who could deny their contribution? However surely we can do better than one out of six?These writers do include something from their personal lives but nothing like the rawness that is found in Grace and Grit!

I love the perspective brought by Treya and its in-depth exploration of her experience…its grounded in experience rather than theory.. I guess that makes you an expert on your own experience only, rather than others, but for me I find that reading about the experience of others is inspirational and paradoxically, deepens not only my understanding of others, but also, myself.

She writes, interestingly, how much advice people had for her, and how many opinions people had, many of which related to hurtful comments about the cause of her cancer being what she was holding on to, repressing, or her karma. She wrote an article for the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology called ‘Attitudes and Cancer, what really helps?’ http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-20-88-01-049.pdf

in which she writes that:

I especially needed to be around people who loved me as I was,

not people who were trying to motivate me or change me or

convince me of their favorite idea or theory.

It seems hard to believe but apparently some people asked her:

“Why did you choose to give yourself cancer?

She wrote that:

When I talk to someone who’s been newly diagnosed with cancer or who had had a recurrence or who is growing tired after years of dealing with cancer, I remind myself that I don’t have to give concrete ideas or advice to be of help. Listening is helping. Listening is giving. I try to be emotionally accessible to them, to reach through my own fears and touch them, to maintain human contact. 

I try to use my own setbacks and weaknesses and illnesses to develop compassion for others and for myself, while remembering to not take serious things too seriously. I try to stay aware of the opportunities for psychological and spiritual healing all around me in the very real pain and suffering that ask for our compassion.

I guess this goes for a great many situations…

In the last year or so of her life she found two practices of great value: mindfulness, and surrender. Interestingly, she saw one of these as more Buddhist, and one more Christian. 

images

                   http://integral-life-landing-pages.s3.amazonaws.com/KWfootnotes/KW_footnotes_vol2.html

She wrote:

You can practice mindfulness, because there is forgetfulness; but you cannot practice awareness, because there is only awareness. In mindfulness you pay attention to the present moment. You try to ‘be here now’. But pure awareness is the present state of awareness before you try to do anything about it. Trying to be here now requires a future moment in which you will then be mindfulness; but pure awareness is this moment before you try anything. You might not always already be mindful but you are always already enlightened.

She finds that surrender helps to connect with this, when she practices surrender

I suddenly let go of whatever was preoccupying me, my awareness opens and expands, and for a moment I suddenly see and feel the beauty and energy all around me, pouring into to me, extending out fo infnity, to all space and vastness and emptiness and power and completeness and everlastingness and fullness.

She writes beautifully of the change in her state of mind when she made decisions in her early days with cancer

the pressure, the fear, the frantic feeling, the confusion, the lack of knowledge- and I look back in wonder at how I motored ahead, being strong, but not taking the time to develop a relationship with my own inner wisdom and thus completely missing the sense of calm and peace that I feel now.

It’s a powerful and sad book and I was reminded of how much I admired her courage.  Treya refused morphine so she could be ‘mindful and aware and present’. One day she said ‘I’m going’ which reminded Ken of a line from Goethe:

All things ripe want to die.

Ken wrote later that he felt her life could be summarised by:

Grace and grit. Being and doing. Equanimity and passion. Surrender and will. Total acceptance and fierce determination. Those two sides of her soul, the two sides she had wrestled with all her life…

Maybe a few of us can relate to this!

Leigh

Wild geese….

HI again everyone

I am reading an article caled ‘Meditation, trauma and contemplative dissociation’ by Daivd Treleaven (Somatics, 2010). He did his PhD on this theme and begins this article with part of a famous poem by Mary Oliver ‘Wild Geese’

content

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on

your knees

For a hundred miles through

the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Treleavon says this poem ‘exposes a wound Western culture is just beginning to explore’, that while the invitation to ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves may appear simple at first, the act is sophisticated and complex’. Not for a cat perhaps but for us!

I first thought of how a participant in my current mindfulness study  Sean, who, when asked how he felt when he was enaging in a mindfulness meditation said that he felt good because he

I feel good knowing I’m doing something that’s good for me; I feel good knowing I have a routine that ensures consistency and it feels good to know I have made it a priority in my life.

Its a bit like Sophia in my last post saying she was ‘doing what I should’. I need to go back to my data but I think there are other similar references.

There are also so many comments about the amazing benefits and I will get to those, somehow what is taking my interest at present in the notion of dissociation. I am finding it very helpful to put this out there on the blog as people are commenting here, or via email or in person or in our mindfulness research group at the university and its all very helpful as I try to connect what people are saying with the literature.

This is reflected in a conversation I had  earlier today with a young woman  in the early stages of pregnancy, who has already pretty much decided she will be having, and will need an epidural when she is in labour. She is intelligent, educated, but didn’t want to be one of those women who scream in labour. Yet as a friend was saying just last night the sounds women make in labour can be an integral part of the process of birthing, bringing energy and focus, there’s something primordial about it for me.

I gently talked to her about how wonderful it is to have these things available through modern medicine but that all being well the body knows what to do if only we can let go into that.

I do find like Treleaven that here is something in the mindfulness research and practice that suggests people see mindfulness as being perhaps more aligned with the brain than the body, where some forms of meditation can lead to some people feeling disconnected from their thoughts, emotions,  perceptions and physical sensations. He calls this phenomenon ‘contemplative dissociation’.

He writes about how bringing our awareness to our inner life can mean we re-awaken old wounds, of course this can be such a wonderful healing process but for some people in some situations it may overwhelm the nervous system in the process. If we know what we are doing, have a therapeutic practitioner or guide we can calll on this may not present a problem.

If people don’t know what they are doing and as you know I am mainly concerned about vulnerable people including children who have already experienced trauma, they could be as he says ‘unknowingly hurting themselves during practice’. I like they way he puts this, there is such compassion and care in his words.

The literature about the benefits of mindfulness for those who have experienced trauma might be leading some people to think there are no risks. Remember when the popular idea around trauma was to debrief and relive it through words and how that was supposed to heal, until the research came out a few years later that told us this was not in fact the case. A bit like the idea of using a touniquet on a snake bite or putting a baby to sleep on his or her tummy, recommendations are often superseded in the light of experience and evidence over time.

I agree with Treleaven that these questions are arising as the field matures and can handle some strong debate, some rigour. He finds there is a ‘noticeable lack of exploration of the relationship  between trauma, dissocation and contemplative practice’. He comes out of his own experience in this regard, there was a point in his life when he thought his Buddhist mindfulness retreats might be making him worse rather than better.

Through his own exploration he has realised that was missing for him was the containment that is needed when we are releasing past trauma, we generally need a non judgmental and very aware loved one, or therapist/counsellor or spiritual teacher who provides a safe container for this release in just the same way as we do for a child, following the work of Winnicott and Bion. A child who has experienced  trauma and  I have seen this so often, lacks this container, has such a ‘thin skin’,  is so sensitive, psychic even, feels into the feelings of all around him or her, lacks groundedness, and can float away easily. I have been that child, adolescent, young adult to a degree and its completely different for me now, its quite extraordinary how different it is for  me now and it seems it has to do with embodiment and working with the senses, coming into the body, providing a container for myself really.

This greatly interests me, its only a part of the overall picture and it doesnt contradict all the positive findings around mindfulness. I feel it just provides more nuance especially in relation to those of us who are sensitive or were very sensitive children. It brings up very important questions around training, experience, capacity to handle situations that may arise if we find that a mindfulness activity catalyses traumatic energy. It could be difficult to tune into one child for example while working with a whole class and I am reminded of workshops I have attended over the years where there were always two faciliators in case someone needed one to one support when something came up.

This work  represents a wonderful enlightening alignment for me around previous research and teaching interests- autism, trauma, spirituality, multi dimensional (cognitive, emotional, embodied, social and spiritual) wellbeing, mindfulness. It helps explain why meditation retreats are suitable for some and not for others and may need to eventually be transcended if we to address some of our deeper human, social and relational needs. It provides much needed insight and information about how we can make our teaching and research more ethical, more safe.

As Trevleavan says ‘.. the continued integration of the wild instinctual body represents a profound step’ …

‘Mary Oliver is right: “The animal body must simply love what it loves. Humans simply need a safe container to do so’. The full poem is below…

love, Leigh

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).

To post.. or not to post, that is the question…

Dear friends

I have been having such a productive day reading and making notes for my mindfulness research… and at one point I wondered whether I would post something around this.. or not…

This cartoon perfectly expresses my dilemma!

I was not sure because I feel there is so much to write but it might not be the right time.. it needs to be digested, to be worked through, into a paper for publication, yet presenting on my research a little early, or writing about it in my blog a little early seems to be help me enormously, in terms of bringing it into the light, making what I am discovering real…bringing it to an audience in a safe kind of way, developmentally I guess…

I have begun to feel as if everything I have written on mindfulness previously has been a preparation for the work I am embarking upon now. As you know if you read my last post I have become increasingly concerned about the equation of mindfulness with ‘spacing out’ in some examples. Some of my participants in my study are quite young and so I feel I have an opportunity here to go a little deeper and explore this very much from the perspective of an educator/researcher with a duty of care and responsibility to share this knowledge and information to assist schools to make informed decisions about mindfulness, meditation and yoga. It feels as if I have no choice, as someone with a  strong background both in meditation/spirituality and in education at a whole range of levels and responsibilities.

I would like to share a comment  from one young woman in my study- ‘Sophia’ when I asked how she felt during a mindfulness activity engaged in for her course:

Lately I have been feeling anxiety when I meditate. I will begin my breathing and relaxing all of my body and I have noticed that right when I get to the sweet spot of doing what I should, not thinking of anything else but my breath, I have a rush of panic and the mediatation is off course. I cant explain it or understand it. I am probably feeling this way lately because I have had a lot of important assignments due and I am extremely anxious about my grades because I need to maintain honors in order to be considered for acceptance into the …. program at ….. I have no other ideas on why this happens to me. Most of the time I am feeling relaxed and free, but not lately.

I have encouraged her to speak with her college teacher and the course coordinator  and I will reflect on what else I might do in terms of providing some general feedback/comment about my findings so support can be provided.  I  can already see some things I will do differently in my next mindfulness study but that is the purpose for this work, to learn…

I won’t divulge any more now as it does need to get into a paper for publication!

II ended up writing much more than I intended but I seem to find myself ‘in the zone’ when I write in this blog.. thank you so much for your reading and attention!

love, Leigh

‘ Organic’ mindfulness research, what am I learning?

Dear friends, colleagues, students…

As you know I am presently conducting research into faculty and students’ experience of a mindfulness course in a community college on the East coast of the States. I am enjoying it so much! Using an ‘organic’ research methodology means I can ‘go with the flow’ which both very much suits my style but also complements a study into mindfulness rather well I feel. I am finding it is rather like the layers of an onion. When I first asked people about their experience of mindfulness I received account after account of a range of outcomes…how helpful it had been, how it had changed their lives, impacted positively on their stress levels, personal lives etc but I didn’t have a sense of their own unique experience. I realised I hadn’t quite asked the question correctly (I have met all the people but the research proper after an initial ‘interview’ is taking place via email)-  I had asked, in true academic style I guess!  in too abstract a manner.

(I am finding though that misunderstandings are leading to nuggets of gold as I receive answers to questions I never thought of asking!)

I often found that when I asked faculty about their experience of mindfulness they talked about them facilitating the mindfulness activity! This is fairly common I find, for teachers to feel much more comfortable talking about the other, than the self, something I am trying to redress in my teacher education courses!

Then  I became aware that just about everyone in the study had a different understanding of the word ‘mindfulness’ . I then realised that for many ‘mindfulness activity’ did not necessarily mean practising a mindfulness meditation so I then needed to ask again and  much more explicitly!

Eventually realised that if I wanted to understand how they – both faculty and students experienced  mindfulness – to go much deeper-  I would need to  ask how they felt when they were practising a mindfulness meditation.Lucky my participants are very patient with this researcher!

One young man in my study ‘James’ had taken the  mindfulness course a  year  ago and felt it had changed his life. He wrote that:

For about ten to fifteen minutes we had to think about a loved one, and had to tell them that we “love them, we forgive them, and we’re sorry”, or something very similar along those lines. I honestly forget the certain type of Meditation that it was, but when it had happened, a calling, a feeling, whatever it may be, rushed into my head and took out a chunk of the dark feeling I had felt from clinical depression.

I had not had any idea previously that he had been diagnosed with depression.  After checking that he had professional support and being reassured (to a degree) that he was under the care of a psychiatrist  I asked him  how he felt when he practised a mindfulness meditation. He replied:

It feels as though my world is being put on mute for a little while. I feel at bliss with myself, sitting on a beach, or going for a drive through the forest with my friends with wind blowing through my hair. I lose myself in thoughts of happiness so I can get away from the driven fear of sadness, or sorrowfulness. I come out of my body and see myself smiling, I feel the good vibes rushing in and the older, less important feelings dissipate. 

i found this concerning but also so valuable  as it gives so much more information about what James is experiencing on an inner level and how we can lead a meditation with a group and not only not know how they are experiencing it, which may be quite different from how we experience it, in addition we may not know if one of our students has been experiencing a period of depression or emotional difficulties. We may have no idea that they are dissociating to this degree….

James’ comment can be linked for me with the following child’s drawing and comment:

IMG_0066

The caption under the picture reads:

I felt calm during the activity. I felt like I was lying down on a cloud floating around in the sky with the sun beaming down on my head! I  felt as if I was peter pan floating around.

I am quite concerned that children could be experiencing such disembodiment at school, and young people, at college. The picture comes from  a paper on a  study of a  mindfulness intervention with children in a disadantaged school. There is no mention of trauma in their background but it is highly unlikely that some of the children in the study had not experienced trauma. Willoughby Brittain’s work with adults is indicating the need to tread very very carefully with people who have experienced trauma and some mindfulness courses actually require people to work through a checklist and indicate if they have had any periods of emotional difficulty or instability. With children it may not be known to teachers and while it becomes obvious to those who are experienced, the signs can be missed by those who don’t.

I was also concerned by the following comment in the same study:

I actually felt like I was losing my head, like I was in my dream when I was breathing in and breathing out, I felt like I wasn’t stressed.

(From the latest issue of the The International Journal of Emotional Education (IJEE):  An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Mindfulness on Perceived Levels of Stress among school-children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds by Elizabeth Costello and Margaret Lawler )

I come back to the ancient Greek word for mindfulness: ‘metis’… the kind of awareness you need if you are sailing a ship at night in a storm… feeling floaty wouldn’t be much use there.

While the meditations we bring to children and adults might be aimed at grounding (although some certainly aren’t, especially if they involve visualisation) I am certainly appreciating through this research that unless we ask about someone’s  experience, unless we are aware of its potential range and diversity  and a wonderful way to go with children is to ask them to draw it as in this study)  we are likely to imagine their experience is similar to ours, as in most things, we tend to generalise from our own experience.

While I am concerned about the findings of this study and about some aspects of the mindfulness intervention, I am very glad  it was researched  and published and the children’s voices and drawings are available to us to help guide us in our work.. I guess this is part of I why I conduct  research and publish as well and I feel there is a need for more information around the more challenging aspects of mindfulness in education.  Many studies do of course highlight children’s positive experiences but they also need to be interpreted carefully and not taken at face value only so educators are able access information from a range of perspectives and make an informed decision about interventions and their suitablility for their particular cohort.

Thank you all for your email , in person and direct comments about how much you enjoy the blog, that’s great, keeps me going with it everytime I think I might stop!

Leigh

Leigh

Creating calmer classrooms

Dear friends

Apologies for any cross postings if you also receive my creating calmer classrooms blog many of you dont and I wanted to share what I just posted there with you as well.

I have been thinking about creating calmer classrooms again as I am about to give a few presentations to primary schools on mindfulness and creating calmer classrooms actually, since this what schools are wanting – I guess it connects in with the focus on positive psychology we see around at the moment.

I am not long back from the US and some people said to me after my presentation on mindfulness in higher education that there was just not enough time in the university setting to practice mindfulness, or to slow down as there was ‘so much to get through. Certainly this does seem to be the case in the US university system, with pressure for faculty and students to succeed. I am doing some research in a community college and my colleage there has had some real success in taking time to reflect, practice mindfulness and develop more awareness of self and other. It still seems to be justified in fairly instrumental terms eg we are doing it so we can become better: public speakers, communicators, more effective in stressful situations, deal with diversity and so on. I would rather see it as something we might do to connect with the truth that lies within ourselves, to pull back from the world and all its demands and reconnect with inner wisdom, which is always there but gets drowned out with all the noise around us, the technology, the feeling we should be doing something…

I have been ready a lovely book along these lines about the ‘Taihu School’ in China. It describes itself as ‘A New Model of Education that Brings Culture and Values Back into Schools’.

71Ymrpy-1ZL._SL1500_

There are lots of aspects about it that remind me of Steiner/Waldorf education, but the reasons behind doing things seem more clearly articulated and more accessible and pragmatic somehow.. I guess the Confucian heritage is perhaps less esoteric and mysterious in a way. I have been thinking that some of the ideas and practices could help me to more clearly frame my ideas (mostly borne out of Steiner education and Rudolf Steiner’s teaching) about why we might want to create calmer classrooms and ways it might be done in mainstream and secular environments.

On the first page of the website there is a clip we can probably all relate to… I have put the link here, in case you are interested in one way we could perhaps help to bring more calm into our students lives.

http://taihuschool.com/the-internet-reduces-childrens-attention-spans/

The internet was made for people like me who love to search organically and have one idea lead to another- I remember having a staff training on the internet when I was teaching at Willunga High and the instructor said I was a ‘natural’, since my technological skills were not good I assumed he meant my searching skills- but I am an adult researcher and have had years when I didnt use technology and had chance to develop on a inner level first.

For children however its another matter and I can see that much mainstream schooling today, with its reliance on technology, whether its youtube clips or searching the net for answers does seem to interfere with more indepth thinking and reflection. Certainly I have noticed a real change in my university students’ writing. I now set assignments that encourage students to read a whole book! I would almost rather they read one whole book in a semester than lots of bits and pieces however valuable, because they seem to be approaching their assignments in a very piecemeal way, putting in some words into a search engine, ending up at a popular website where the temptation to cut and paste is almost irrestible for some it seems ( I don’t enjoy the resulting phone call at all and I know they are busy, but….) or they end up in google books and pluck a quote from a page of a book they have never looked at apart from that page and then put that book in the reference list! Lucky I am up to their tricks but it makes marking more stressful. When I receive a thoughtful, well-researched, nuanced and cogent paper I could leap from my computer (probably a good thing) and jump for joy! Those students are generally shocked and surprised by my positive feedback and often, request to publish their work on one of my blogs, anonymously of course.

It also connects with a lovely piece I read this morning (14/3/2015) in The Australian ( online of course!). It is written by a teacher who said that technology has meant that teaching has changed immeasurably (in many good ways) and will continue to evolve. But the human element remains as important as ever. The last word goes to one of my students who looked at me hopefully one afternoon and asked: “Can we please not use our computers today? Could you please just teach us?”

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/this-teaching-life/story-fn9n8gph-1227260138231?sv=e609587e0fef481ce8bdded63e24dd01

I have noticed this at the university too, when I go to the whiteboard with some markers and write something up and teach in the old fashioned way the majority of  students look up from their devices with palpable relief and even enjoyment at the prospect of having someone explain something to them from the wisdom of practice and experience.

Back to the book about the Chinese school though. I bookmarked (on my IPad!) so many pages and I won’t get to it all here but some of it is certainly going to inform some of the work I will be doing in schools and in my mindfulness and creating calmer topics this year at the university.

A core aim of the Taihi school is to cultivate inner peace, contentment, harmony, balance and quiet, something taught bu Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates. I love the way they try to provide children with the means by which they can acknowledge their experience of internal peace – however rarely- as an experience in childhood, a natural experience that all children have had but that tends not to be acknowledged, gets clouded over with worries and stresses and so it becomes something lost that is forever sought in adulthood. That explains why when we do find it we feel like we are coming home.

I have personal experience of this..I can remember the deep stillness I felt playing in my sandpit in my backyard in Mt Evelyn, Victoria. It seemed like the biggest sandpit in the world- now I look at it is pretty big! ( I am so pleased with myself, I just went to my study, found the photo, photographed it with my IPad, edited and imported it and voila! Easy I know but I have not done it before…).

IMG_0063

It would have been taken around 1961 or 2 I reckon… behind me is a wonderful forest and whenever I hear bellbirds I associate them with this still quiet place of great beauty where I could happily commune with the trees and the birds, build things, and just be at peace.. I do look pretty blissful don’t I?!

But then it changed, I taught myself to read not that long after that, in around late 1962 I think, in my first year in kindy. There was no pressure put on me, although my mother was certainly a book lover. I was determined to decipher those little black mars on the page in my Andy Pandy and Teddy book about wallpapering the bedroom. It wasn’t exactly the one in the picture below but in that series (this picture came off the internet, I dont know where the original book went).

20462

I did manage through much perseverance I remember to be able to work out what the small amount of text was saying. It’s really interesting that when I finally got to the last page it was about Andy and Teddy having boxed themselves in by wallpapering the whole room including over the door!

I think by the time I got about a third of the way through a critical deconstructive feminist analysis of the work of Virginia Woolf in Honours Sociology in 1980 at Monash I did start to feel boxed in! This led to an interest in finding my way back to that inner peace and contentment, through a range of ways probably not wise to speak about here, some fruitful some not so fruitful.. I had to go through all of this clearly, and so has the society but how would it be if we pay more attention to giving children the opportunity to tap into this space, as I had in my sandpit. Children are rushed off to child care and all sorts of managed play, ‘play dates’ and after school classes and parents are juggling multiple responsibilities, mothers are no longer home inside baking and cleaning while their children are in the sandpit…

If all schools could find a balance of giving children more time in nature, freedom to move, time to create, learn implicitly and through what their teachers embody as well as explicit teaching of literacy and numeracy so children are where they need to be developmentally, cognitively, emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially… I think this is what parents are increasingly calling for. Of course this balance is not at all easy to achieve.

In the book- which is a boarding school so they have more time with the children, there is mention of a Buddhist approach to education called ‘smoking’ or ‘perfuming’ a kind of ‘invisible influencing’ which means setting up a ‘special surrounding environment’ of beneficial influences which, since children are sponges and mimics, slowly elicits virtuous behaviours rather that tackling them head on through the behaviourist use of consequences or the various psychological techniques employed to change children’s behaviour today.

The idea though of course is that over time the smoke slowly permeates the meat so it develops an entirely different flavour from that influence, similarly if you expose clothes to the aroma of a special perfume or oil, after a while the clothes will absorb that fragance and become beautifully scented. The point also it that it doesn’t happen straightaway, and takes time, commitment and a very positive environment. I think though I will have to come up with another term.. and even the concept of ‘invisible influencing’ today is problematic given our duty of care should unsuitable people be working in our institutions.

The main theme of the book seems to be about taking the time, going more deeply, not rushing from topic to topic in a disconnected manner so the children can learn to listen and concentratte for long, to teach the children not just how to do things properly but teach them how to live in the moment with awareness, teach them how to concentrate, to develop their own independent minds rather than accept the viewpoints of others, take risks and not focus on having to be right all the time. (About a third of the way through the book comes the line:

One of the special things we do at our school is to give the students a place of calm and quiet away from all sorts of negative outside influences.

How hard it is to do this in modern school! I have done some work in this area through bringing the concept of A Quiet Place

Home-BG

a project I visited in in 2002 in Liverpool in the UK. With the help of principals I created some quiet rooms and quiet spaces here and we certainly saw how much children appreciated these aesthetic, calming and centring envionments. I remember in one Hills School that all the children wanted to use the space not simply the child with emotional difficulties and so we rostered them in there in twos! In another school the quiet area became a race track area, something I didn’t quite plan for but turned out to be just as therapeutic. You can read about this in my teacher resource book Recreating the Circle of Wellbeing and my paper ‘I just want friends’ available along with other papers and resources on this site:https://flinders.academia.edu/LeighBurrows

The book goes on to say that they give the children a place of calm and quiet, in which nature, their nature can be appreciated in its wholeness, its essence before it is named, labelled, separated, judged, sorted, analysed etc. They do this to:

help them become aware of the internal peace that is already available in their minds. We try to keep them away from being overly influenced by TV, the internet, computer games, excessive cellphone use and so on. We try to give them a period of purity away from all of this- whichs filled with all sorts of real life activities- so that they can establish a quiet mental foundation.

They say they use technology in teaching but not in the early years as they don’t believe that:

Elementary age children should be stimulated all the time by computers and the internet, and have found that this has a negative impact on their attention spans, ability to concentrate and desire to explore the real world of grass, trees and nature. This we particularly try to give young children time outdoors where they can experience the awe of nature and discover the peacefuliness in their own minds.

Of course all this is so much easier and probably more appropriate in the early years but I can appreciate the reasoning that if it is done in the early years at least there is something that is strengthened enough perhaps so it is more accessible to adolescents when they begin searching for deeper meaning in the world around them and people as well.

I will finish for today very soon, and come back to this in relation to older students but I love the way they write:

At the Taihu Schoool we try to give the children a ‘smooth period’ in their lives, which is what the golden time of childhod should be like so they can always forever after remember what is it is like to experience mental calmness and clarity…. they will always be able to get back to this internal peace later in life if they want it.

I certainly experienced ‘a smooth period’ in my life in my sandpit on the edge of a forest with the sound of bellbirds all around me, breathing in the fresh air naturally without conscious awareness, without any organised activities. Aa an only child as well I guess I had less interruptions! I don’t remember any adults that I knew who embodied it though, it only seemed to come in nature experiences and luckily I did have many of those, particularly in the Dandenong Ranges. It wasn’t until after a period of searching and some risk taking in my late adolescence and early adult life I realised I could tap back into it with meditation, but there is a lot of unravelling of self and identity to do before we can experience those long periods of uninterrupted bliss some of us experienced in childhood!

I guess what is needed first and foremost is educators who have experienced calm, stillness, wellbeing even to a small degree and are willing to continue to develop their capacity to do so, otherwise how are we to know how to create such environments for children? At the Taihu School they have weekend workshops for parents as well, for the same reasons!

Of course comments are so welcome, either here so everyone can read them, or via email…

Leigh

Mindfulness and dadirri

Dear friends I was doing some research this morning on cross cultural research in mindfulness. The cross-cultural links – convicts versus pilgrims- I was looking for in relation to my  American research somehow led me in a wonderful way right back here, to the inter-cultural space that is between Aboriginal and non – Aboriginal  people in Australia.

Firstly thought I wanted to pass on this line from D H Lawrence:

“You feel free in Australia. There is great relief in the atmosphere – a relief from tension, from pressure, an absence of control of will or form. The skies open above you and the areas open around you“.

I somehow went from that to the  the Aboriginal concept of ‘dadirri’ (deep listening).  I had written about dadirri in a paper published  in 2004 on Compassionate  Parent teacher communication many years before I was researching mindfulness when I was a project officer working with young people with learning difficulties and their teachers and parents.

Every now and I again I have had the thought I should go back and investigate the concept more deeply and I was very moved to read  this morning of how it is being connected now with mindfulness.

In a wonderful interview on you tube 

Aboriginal writer and educator Miriam Rose Ungumnerr- Baumann describes deep listening as ‘Dadirri’ which:

is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Daidirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it cals to us. This is the gift Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.

I urge you watch the clip. It presents dadirri in a way that accords with my experience of mindfulness, a kind of slowing down, a presence, a non-conceptual communication.

Miriam is asking that we give Aboriginal people time to catch up. I think she is too polite to ask that we slow down, but is offering us perhaps a gentle hint so that we may meet somewhere in thie (intercultural) space.

Judy Atkinson whose wonderful book Trauma Trails is a resource in my Creating Calmer Classrooms topic writes that dadirri is a ‘non intrusive observation, or quietly aware watching’. I think many of us who have worked with children with disabilities or who have experienced trauma know that kind of empty observation. If we tried to observe in the usual clinical mode, full of thoughts and opinions we would get no-where- we need to suspect that self and become empty, non judgmental, still..

This kind of intercultural spaces as the work of Homi Bhabha in hybridity and the third space avoids binaries, allows and holds difference, is sometimes confronting, ambiguous and uncertain. Doesn’t most human communication have some of this anyway? What is often missing is the ability to sit with that uncertainty, remain in the space as traditional power relations and worldviews are questioned. It is a space of deep potential. Let us bring this space into our classrooms through mindfulness, our own to start with, whether we are working with children or adults.

While its my profession to intellectualise and problematise, as a scholar and practitioner of mindfulness I am delighted to hear Miriam speak with elegance and grace of the simplicity of dadirri, something that everyone has, it is for everyone, not only Aboriginal people…

If you watch her face as she speaks, when her focus is dadirri you can see her go within, the intellect recedes, she goes to that quiet place within. This is echosed in a person story  from Associate Professor Dawn Bessarab

Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend time with my elders at place called ‘Gulun’ which is their country near Lombadina on the Dampier Peninsula. Their campsite at Gulun is right on the beach on a high sand hill that faces directly out to sea.I returned to Gulun from a shopping trip at the nearby Djarindjin community to find my two elders sitting side by side and gazing out to sea. In that moment they were not speaking, sitting quietly totally immersed in the landscape. My first impulse was to go up to them announce my presence and ask them what they were doing. But I resisted the impulse and the question, choosing instead to observe from a distance and to try answer the question for myself. After several minutes ofreflection, I realised they were meditating which was a revelation for me as this new piece of knowledge hit my consciousness. When they eventually moved, letting me know that I could approach I went up and greeted them. My Gulu (grandfather) then pointed out to sea and asked me what I saw. I looked and all I could see was a blue flat expanse of ocean that stretched to the horizon. Occasionally a distant wave would reflect the sun’s rays but nothing seemed to break the flat calm. After a while I replied that I couldn’t see anything. He then proceeded to point out wherea Gulil (turtle) was swimming and a dugong diving. He read the patterns of the seato me like a story taken from a familiar and favourite book. I realized at that point,that by sitting quietly meditating on the ocean my Gulu and Golli (grandmother) hadlearnt to read and know the ocean in a way that I could not. That moment wasa huge learning curve for me in realising and knowing that my Elders, past and present, had been practicing mindfulness meditation for thousands of years.

love to all

Leigh

Developing mindfulness

Dear friends

Well it is a while since I have written on this blog and it seems quite a lot has happened in between including experience extreme temperature changes! We were snowed in while we were in New England and my friends there are still shovelling snow which is piling up as high as their roofs.

What an education and what a privilege, to visit 2 New England states, plus Washington CD, a fancy restaurant ‘Little Park’ in Tribeca for my birthday, and  Waldorf school in Brooklyn, New York and  Monticello and Blacksburg in Virginia. Not to mention the reading I got in when we were snowed in, and of course on the plane, in between episodes of the wonderfully funny ‘Web Therapy’ and a few movies and a documentary called ‘Ivory Tower’ about the state of higher education in the US. I couldn’t believe Emirates was showing this on the plane, what fabulous research prep!

I’ve entitled this post ‘developing mindfulness’ because I have realised – along with some others writing in the field we are at the very beginning of this journey into and perhaps beyond ‘mindfulness’.

Just about everyone I have spoken to and read of late about mindfulness, formally and informally has a different definition! For some it has to do with ‘inclusive awareness’. or ‘unconditioned awareness’. ‘participatory awareness’, or ‘mindlessness’, ‘awakeness’, ‘pure awareness, ‘taking responsibility’, ‘focusing’, ‘noticing’, ‘thinking before I act or speak’, ‘awareness of surroundings’. ‘being in the zone’, ‘handling situations more effectively’, ‘relaxing into discomfort’, ‘detachment’, ‘non judging’, ‘self-compassion’ ‘flow’ ‘accepting’, being in the present moment’, ‘not distracted’, ‘communicating more effectively’, ‘being more aware of others feelings’ … and many more.

I had the privilege of visiting a college class on mindfulness and communication and talked about my sense that mindfulness is our birthright, a natural state within us able to be located at any time in which we are able to be in the present moment and there is a sense that all’s right with the world in spite of any personal difficulties we might be going through a the time.

While I feel this state is  often catalysed by a powerful experience in nature relationship (such as falling in love, birth, parenting, career/vocation, service,death, divorce, fallings out with people or work) or illness I was interested in whether the young people in the class knew what I was trying somewhat clumsily to express so I invited responses.

I was blown away. About 6 or 7 students put their hands up straight away and told us stories of feeling this when:

  • I am serving soup at the soup kitchen for homeless people
  • when I teach a child something at the child care centre where I work and the child really ‘gets it’ and I feel my life is worthwhile
  • when I wake up in the morning and I am just aware of myself before any problems come into my mind
  • when I had my son
  • when I have paid my bills for the week

I was struck by the elegant simplicity of what they said and I have been wondering if perhaps this generation is way more across the evolutionary phenomenon that seems to be happening where the individual self is making way for a more transcendent, ‘higher’, deeper self. It’s not like post modernism where the self was deconstructed to the point of nihilism. This is different, there is a sense that there is something underlying our selfish, needy, wanting, demanding individual selves that connects us, but consciously this time. Jack Wexler in his book Mystical Sociology writes that this is a new phenomenon, that as this consciousness becomes available to more and more people, it’s not longer the elites who hold on to the power –  once priests,  or as Barry Long called them religionists, now perhaps psychologists, mindfulness teachers who gatekeep, insist on years of practice on the cushion before we can truly connect with what is, as I said above, to me, our birthright.

I have never had much truck with those who hold institutional power. I am interested in my research and teaching in mindfulness in finding out how people experience mindfulness, to hear from past students writing to me such as the young woman who wrote this week to tell me how she has been tsharing the soles of the feet mindfulness activity with her new class of year 3/4s and how they ask to do it everyday. I think this speaks to the passion and care of this young woman as much if not more than the actual activity…

As Willoughby Brittain has convincingly shown, it is likely that whatever intervention or program we bring, with enthusiasm, love of children, excitement about learning and commitment to teaching  is likely to show positive outcomes, whether it is mindfulness or anything else we are passionate about. I remember being taken with my year 4 teacher’s passion for grafting fruit trees… not that I was in the slightest bit interest in the topic, but I was inspired by his inspiration. That really stood out for me.. perhaps that is mindfulness- I do remember his presence and us being enveloped in that presence…

Who knows, but  like Willoughby Brittain from Brown University I am keen to temper outlandish claims for successful outcomes of mindfulness interventions and perhaps more importantly, I am especially keen to highlight that mindfulness tends to things up from the unconscious, it’s what it is meant to do if it is practiced properly, because it leads us to the Zen idea of ‘big mind’ or the Buddhist one of ‘great mind’ or the Sufi idea of oneness, the ancient Greek one of non duality, of no-change. It will lead to the dissolution of the superficial parts of the self, those habits of mind we have been conditioned to uphold, those parts of us that have been formed through reaction to environmental stimuli but our not our true selves. And this is painful, there is no way out of that. It is like Margot Ridley says and demonstrates, a cleaning out. As Adyashanti has shown in his life experience, there can be epiphanies and realisations of oneness but they fade and leave us until we have done the clearing out of the conditioned, limited self, which by the way doesn’t retreat too easily!

Are regular teachers and workshop leaders prepared to deal with breakdowns of the self, of ‘dark nights of the soul’ the feelings of depression, of not coping ? I am not at all sure if they are. If we have people in our classes and sessions who have experienced trauma, at war, or though familial abuse or other events, they need their protection, it is necessary for their survival, until they are ready to begin to let the chinks show through the armour. This needs a very safe environment and a guide who knows the territory, otherwise anger and fear can result, along with vicarious trauma.

And should we be breaking down the building up of a child’s self, or should we allow it to go through its natural developmental course, until in freedom, a young person or older person decides they want to consciously undertake their own journey into the self, and its darkness, not just the individual darkness but the cultural, historical darkness of the human being in evolution.

These are all questions I believe we should begin asking as the field of mindfulness matures…  it’s a necessary endeavour as questions start to be raised about ‘Mc Mindfulness’, the marketing of mindfulness mindfulness in the military, mindfulness in large corporations, practising mindfulness to make more money, be more successful and even, the company that sells marijuana, which call itself MINDFUL.

As you all know I am passionate about mindfulness, I am excited about my post grad topic in mindfulness, about my research in mindfulness, about sharing it with others. However I feel there is a need to bring a degree of mindfulness to the topic of mindfulness, some awareness, some criticality, if it is to be something that can be developed further, sustained, rather than end up just another fad that is superseded.

As always I would love to hear from you, either on the blog or by email. I feel this post has been ‘brewing’ for a while, but not quite  ready to write. I had the moment tonight when my partner said he was delayed at work picking grapes…

It is wonderful to be back in this warm, spacious country after an incredible visit to the states and it will take time to process all I have learnt, that is for sure, I am so grateful to all there who have welcomed me into their workplaces and homes..

love Leigh

To be fair: continuing on a ‘positive’ theme….

Dear friends

I find writing this blog so helpful for my self in terms of learning how to communicate effectively what I experience to others. Last post I was wanting express some of my concerns about the limitations of positive thinking and found myself feeling I had not quite conveyed this fully and had perhaps painted too bleak a picture. Of course  the positive thinking/positive education/positive psychology/wellbeing initiatives can be an excellent starting place for many as we try to understand and address the unhappiness  and mental health issues in our world, and in people of all ages perhaps especially the young.

For me though it’s not  so much about things being either positive or negative.  This like most binaries does not seem useful to me. While polarities are the stuff of life – yin/yang, male/female, east/west, day/night, white/black, positive/negative, they often contain a hidden hierarchy where one is deemed ‘better than the other’.

What I didn’t express in the last post was that yes of course it’s true that  our thoughts do affect our emotions  and changing our thoughts can change our behaviour and even the situation to a degree but what comes first is our awareness, we need firstly to be aware of the thoughts before we  can change them. So the awareness is the most important aspect for me and perhaps not yet addressed enough in positive psychology although the work of Csiksentmihalyi in ‘flow’ is a significant exception.

There  are certainly times when we want to ‘go with the flow’ and feel what we are feeling… perhaps a  tinge of melancholy of sadness, of grief perhaps if we have experienced a loss.   Certain urgent and intense experiences ( often relating to death or illness) can  jolt us from an everyday state of existence to the authentic state of mindfulness of being as existential philosophy Heidegger and existential psychoanalyst Yalom suggested. During these liminal ‘border’ experiences we are often fully self-aware, in an existential, heightened state… and if we overlay a whole lot of rationalisation we are going to miss the beauty, power, significance, message, learning and healing.They may be more powerful than years of sitting meditation practice so we want to be able to let go into them.

More and more I see that the mindfulness work is about realising we are not our mind.So using our mind to change our behaviour while perhaps effective to a degree in the short term (rationalising to reduce panic as I did last year when I thought I had messed up some online grading!) it  doesn’t go anywhere deep enough.It may perhaps help though  in building some ego-strength, enough resilience to be able to begin to accept some suffering and undertake the process of dismantling the ego!

It’s not about trying to stop thinking though , that is like using the mind to defeat the mind and it’s too clever for that to work!

The best way to realise we are not our minds it seems to me and many spiritual teachers is to get into our  bodies through a form of meditation that takes us right inside, (see http://www.barrylong.org/statements/meditation.shtml ) to experience the pure sensation, the sensation in the soles of the feet, the toes, the fingers, legs, arms, head, nose, lips.. try it now, are you able to sense it?

As a woman in one of my workshops said “When I was doing the exercise I couldn’t think!’.

As  Australian meditation teacher Linda Clair ( Simple Meditation ) says is about changing the reference point from the mind to the body, ‘a very powerful thing to do’.

Its realising that our wellbeing is not dependent on where we are  or what we are thinking, it has to do with tapping into this inner awareness which is behind all thought and emotion and is always present whereever we are in whatever situation  if only we can connect with it. Over time it becomes stronger and stronger as well and less likely to seemingly disappear… which reminds me of  a colleague who had some technological difficulties during a conference presenting,and telling us that ‘My wellbeing just flew out the window!” It doesn’t really disappear though, our awareness of it is just hijacked by the mind which is very powerful in those situation.

The grounding and stabilising of awareness as Linda and Barry Long acknowledge  takes time, it has to take time.

The mindfulness practice is about preparing the body and when it has taken hold enough within,  we don’t really need the practices anymore, being aware becomes a way of being, but hopefully this doesn’t mean we become too boring!  as New York Times blogger Judith Warner ( warner.blogs@nytimes.com)  suggests happened to one of her friends who was right into mindfulness:

I was beginning to wonder what body snatcher had taken my cranky friend away and left this kindly, clam, pod person in her place?

She wondered:

Is something lost in all this new, improved selfhood? That is, an edge. That little bit of raggedness that for some of us really is the heart of what makes us human?

I don’t think we need to lose our individuality – I don’t want to lose my little bit of raggedness and I appreciate it in others, very much.

Nonetheless it is good to be experiencing such an incredible slowing down, which is very softening!

I am finding that my questions, my need for answers is disappearing, that I am more happy to just be here, not bothering too much. We do need to give ourselves time for this work, to connect with this awareness that is already within and not live so much  on the surface of the mind with this likes/dislikes, opinions, arguments. There is a challenge for those of us who work in education, which so much emphasis on ‘mind work’.

I see that university teaching and research should ideally include time and space for deep reflection, for sanctuary, for insight, intuition, creativity, relationship.I found this email from 2011 the other day from a friend and post-graduate student…

I had a dream the other night I had forgotten about but something triggered the images again. I was helping you set up a new contemplative education center at the university! It was a bit of an experiment to see if it would work and it did. It became very popular. It started slow, mainly because the land they gave us was the outskirts of the campus and quite hard to find and access, but we built this amazing multi-layered, open, plan, lush, colorful place that was quite magnetic.

People couldn’t drive there, they had to walk but they came in spite of the terrain because they could abandon their books and bags and just come as themselves. There were lots of people’s bags and books left along the path and when they arrived they were so relieved and happy to be there…..

It’s such a lovely image.. I hope the mindfulness topic and our mindfulness special interest research group (contact me if interested in either leigh.burrows@flinders.edu.au ) might be part of something bigger like this…I  do think I might be dropping some bags and even maybe some books ( I deleted some books on my I Pad just this morning!) along the path as well!

much love to you all and thanks for the comments and emails- will post something from Massachusetts I think after a visit to Walden Pond!

Leigh

Exploring some (American) themes : ‘Live free or die’, ‘smile or die’, positive thinking and positive psychology

Hi again everyone

As you know I have been doing some background reading in preparation for my research and conference trip to the states. Please excuse the somewhat discursive and meandering style of this post, I hope you will stay with it!

This week I have been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s fabulously titled book ‘Smile or Die’ about the down side of positive thinking in America. I made an instant association with the maxim on New Hampshire licence plates ‘ Live free or die’ but I think they might be on opposite sides of the spectrum!

Ehrenreich writes about her meeting with positive psychology ‘guru’ Martin Seligman and her exploration of the ‘optimism training’ which has been offered by his organisation – with the aim of assisting people  to be  more ‘successful’ as well as  more healthy and happy ( without a sense these may not necessarily be linked).  Seligman recommends in his book Authentic Happiness to: “choose your venue and design your mood to fit the task at hand’, and suggests that while this involves ‘working hard’,  optimism can be learned through  ‘reprogramming’  thoughts in a more optimistic direction. I have always found this idea a little offensive-  if people  are facing adversity and multiple challenges all over the world is it really  because they  have not been optimistic enough? Seligman is apparently impatient with ‘victims’ and ‘victimology’ saying in a 2000 interview that when things go wrong it is our character or decisions that are at fault and not external circumstances.  (There seems to be a tension here though between this work and his early pre positive psychology research on ‘learned helplessness’ which showed that when dogs were tormented in random ways they become passive, depressed and unable to defend themselves, but I guess perhaps people are seen as having more internal resources than dogs.)

There does appear to be  tendency ‘cheerily’ make grand claims for the benefits of positive psychology, with a number of studies now emerging however that indicate there are growing concerns about inconsistencies, ‘bad science’, reservations about findings including that many of the results are presented as stronger than they are, that they are causative rather than correlational and therefore ‘scientifically unwieldy’ , that there are  even potentially harmful effects and also  claims of its inherent conservatism, sect-like feel,  ‘branding’, and acceptance of social inequities. For positive psychology attends mostly to the changes we can make internally by adjusting our own outlook rather than working for social change.

I guess that like as with mindfulness there are many careers invested in and based on positive psychology!

I have been intrigued actually in recent months by the links some writers, teachers, students  and academics are making between positive psychology and mindfulness. I think its another example of mindfulness having multiple meanings. It seems to me that Western positive psychology is very much focused on the individual, while traditional Eastern meditation traditions are focused  on ‘no-self’ or ‘one self’ so its hard to see how mindfulness has been absorbed into positive psychology so readily.

it seems to me that a ‘non dual’ approach to mindfulness has much potential for us in the West as it  does not deny or repress or fight with the conditioned individual self but it does not buttress it either, rather it surrounds it so the experience of subjectivity and oneness with all are therefore possible at the same time, with a gradual dissolution of the problematic aspects of self. Therefore there is  no loss of individual freedom but no alienation either from the body, other people  and nature.

It seems to make perfect sense to me and represents  and the coming together of East and West, perhaps even male and female.  I am reminded of Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of Sacha)’s work on autism, where he framed the autism and Asperger’s Syndrome as ‘extreme forms of the male brain’ and excessive empathy to the point of a loss of self an ‘extreme form of the female brain’.

This links for me with the experience of friends who lived in ashrams in India with spiritual teachers, able to find equanimity and depth and oneness there but unable to do so back at home in relationship, family, work. And with those of us who have satisfying lives in the West, with family , friends, work and a strong sense of social justice and service and yet know that powerful as all of these are in being able to draw us out into the world, there is an inexhaustible spring that nourishes us deeply from within.. I think this is what Frankel must have been able to tap into when he writes of his experience of extreme conditions in concentration camps and how when given the opportunity to leave and have outer freedom he elected to stay with his fellow captives.

Being able to make such a choice, coming from a balanced place of individual & connected- from the true ‘I’-  is certainly a deeper form of freedom for me.. is that what those patriotic lines on the licence plates ‘live free or die’ really point to?

And perhaps what Ehrenreich is asking us to see as well is that while individuals in the West may make ‘free’ decisions they do not  necessarily need to be  aimed at extending our life expectancy, or making us more happy or healthy, or indeed more successful and wealthy.

I am conscious that Australia is embracing many aspects of positive psychology in both government and private education, and in university education. I believe there is a lot more circumspection needed as there is about mindfulness as there can be a secular kind of evangelicism in these movements, embraced first perhaps by America but maybe willingly and uncritically followed by Australians?

I would love to show you today’s Leunig cartoon in The Age.. he shows a couple at the table with their little dog beside them… the woman is looking at the newspaper and saying:

‘Ah well.. I suppose we’d better look and see what new year resolutions America has made for us..’

What a country of diverse perspectives I have the privilege to visit again!

In a very early post on this blog I wrote about my desire to see a local, grassroots mindfulness movement develop here, that suits our context, consciousness and somewhat informal and sceptical, questioning style… I am reminded of the book my partner read a few years ago called  ‘Deer Hunting with Jesus’ where the author stated that  while America got the pilgrims, Australia the convicts (and we were the lucky ones!).. as a former  Victorian I can identify with this but South Australia is a state of free settlers so where does this place us?

In any case I am very drawn to the pilgrim side of America and that’s why we are flying into Boston!

On another note I forgot to thank people for their emails and personal comments about the shape activity in the blog before last, its been quite popular and is something I will use in workshops, like mindfulness it can help us shift perspective!

love Leigh

He is an intellectual, as defined by Albert Camus: “Someone whose mind watches itself.”

Last post for 2014: Mindfulness in America I

Hi again everyone

This is the first in a series of posts about mindfulness in America, from my point of view, based on personal experience, speaking with people (teachers and students) involved in mindfulness in higher education in the states and on my reading.

Just as I did when I was asked to do some teaching in university in Macau, China I did a whole lot of background reading. I guess this is/was my way of approaching a lot of things including home birth! There is a danger in this of course as I have always had a naive idea – still not completely gone and perhaps that’s a good thing as it does still sometimes come to pass – that all I have to do is pass on the right book to a person at the right time and all is sorted!

I have been reading some great books though  with titles such as ‘Yoga in America’, ‘Mindful America’, ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ ‘Selling Spirituality’ ..but right now the focus is a book called ‘New World Mindfulness from the founding fathers Emerson and Thoreau to your personal practice ‘by a couple of writers I really like Donald McCown and Marc Micozzi (they also wrote ‘Teaching Mindfulness’ and ‘The Ethical Space of Mindfulness.’

I guess I am really drawn to the idea I first encountered in the work of Peter Kingsley (see many earlier posts) who sees the origins of a Western form of mindfulness in ancient Greek times, and that we can therefore find its roots in our own culture rather than having to import another.. ie Buddhism.. something worthy of contemplation …. I feel what I am doing now is exploring the non dual dimensions in both Eastern and Western forms of mindfulness and meditation.. (by non dual I mean the dimension in which both oneness and difference are able to be contained without losing either, so there is no separation between subject (here) and object (out there) and yet a the same time there is still a play of forces and elements, energies arising and dissipating, without the need to attach, or hold on… the more we can abide in this state and allow and accept reactions from the past to come up, come though the more they can be gently dissolved, also the idea that we are already complete, that we do not need to search for what we are searching for is already within us).

I love the way this ‘New world mindfulness’  book includes an emphasis on the silence and solitude of the early American wilderness ‘where walking was a necessity and meditative practice’. I think this connects with the burgeoning interest of walking the Camino trail and a friend just spoke to me the other night of her walk from London to Rome, staying in (approved and accepting) churches along the way. I asked her what led her to do the walks, and by herself. She thought for a while and finally said ‘I think you are searching for something’. Another friend and colleague has just taken off on a very long drive to the West, towing a camper trailer behind, driving and stopping as her fancy takes her.. another kind of pilgramage perhaps.

Even though I went to the New England area earlier this year I didn’t get to visit through one of the areas I was most interested in, that is, the countryside where Thoreau, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, William James and Louisa May Alcott’s dad hung out.. the natural world of the transcendentalists who at the same time had a certain pragmatism much needed in the early development of America and its character… I guess these combine to form something I admire : spiritedness.

This time we plan to visit and walk through this area (it will be very cold I am aware) , including the famous Walden Pond. The book ‘Walden’ was written by Henry David Thoreau in 1864 and about 100 years later the (in)famous B F Skinner wrote ‘Walden II a novel about a society based on principles of behaviour modification which gave rewards and punishments to shape the desired behaviour. More recently quantum psychologist and meditation teacher Stephen Wolinksy wrote ‘Walden III: in search of an utopian Nirvana’. This book focuses on the search in Western metaphysics for ‘logos’ or truth, meaning and purpose, an original cause and by extension a ‘transcendental ego’which he sees as driven by a desire for a higher reality, a Walden, a utopia, a Nirvana, a Heaven, something Beyond, which is not part of the world. Wolinksy does an amazing job of mapping how ideas from post-modern deconstruction, neuroscience, quantum physics, Budhism, Advaita Vedanta, Tantric Yoga, Hindu Yoga and quantum psychology are all coming at the idea of the ‘no-self’ and the Western idea of self as an illusion, but from different angles. Fascinating to those of us interested in this stuff!

It makes ‘sense’ to me in a way because the ‘self’ seems to me to be mostly made up of a bunch of reactions to present events that trigger past events. The task to me, if there is such a thing, is bring the transcendent dimension into the body and nature rather than seeking escape from this world to a better one.

How could there be a better world I think to myself often, when we have such amazing birds, animals, plants, food,  weather ‘events’, the sea, the hills, the rocks, the stars, walks to go on alone and with each other? (Even though ‘the other’ can be a great challenge at times for the conditioned self!)

Emerson wrote in his early book Nature (1836, quoted in New World Mindfulness):

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhileration……..Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing, I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

And something more ‘earthy’ perhaps frim Thoreau, in ‘Walden':

I did not read books that first summer; I hoed beans. Nay I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the heart or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes in a summer morning I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sand around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun faling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway I was reminded of the lapse of time… I realised what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.

(I did read the other day though that apparently Emerson’s sister used to take a basket of freshly made donuts to Thoreau’s ‘lonely’ little cabin and they often had him over for dinner!)

I really resonate with these ideas and excerpts during holiday time! and, enjoying sleeping in and morning meditations in bed I  am reminded of the following poem,  first encountered in first year English Literature at Monash University in 1977:

THE SUN RISING.
by John Donne

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

She’s all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

The romantic poets have so much to offer us, still, in their vision of a world beautifully highlighted in ‘New World Mindfulness’ where the mind is not separate from the body, where we do not need to sit in a certain posture, breathe in a certain way or ‘follow a certain dogma’ to be a ‘good’ mindfulness practitioner.

This is not the path for me. I find it refreshing the way the authors say it is a ‘mindfulness book for sceptics, for those who think mindfulness is an exotic Asian fad’.

McCown and Micozzi write of Thoreau’s ‘informal mindfulness practice’. I love this idea which connects with some other terms I am encountering in the non-dual mindfulness literature: ‘natural mindfulness’ and ‘effortless mindfulness’. More of these themes in coming posts… we leave for  Boston, New England on the 14th!

love, Leigh