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..