A fork in the road, between mindfulness for stress reduction and mindfulness for liberation and wisdom

Dear friends, colleagues, students

I was reading an interview with Daniel Goleman (of EQ fame) about his most recent book ‘Focus’:Will mindfulness change the world? Daniel Goleman isn’t sure.

I loved the bit where the interviewer said to Goleman:

I was struck by something you said recently that there’s a fork in the road, between mindfulness for stress reduction and mindfulness for liberation and wisdom.

The interviewer seemed to think the paths might converge, I don’t think Goleman was so sure and I am not sure I am either.

It does seem to me that something has been lost as David Loy suggests. Loy has written on nondual mindfulness  and how this was present in early Western philosophy but lost along the way only to be picked up by the West later on through our interest in Eastern religions and philosophies. Kingsley writes about this too and cautions that we can only really understand the religion of another culture if we understand our own. Kingsley also shows that the pre- Socratics understood that mindfulness was not practiced for self-development but for the whole culture, the whole race, before the western rational mind took over and created the notion of an individual thinking/feeling/wanting/selfish self  something many of us are now attempting to divest ourselves of!

Loy is concerned that the contemporary mindfulness movement has gone somewhat off course from its original roots, perhaps this is what happens when a philosophy arising out of a collectivist culture is transplanted to an individualistic one. Suddenly mindfulness meditation becomes understood as a program of psychological development to assist with personal problems, stress levels and reactive thoughts and emotions. I agree with Loy that on some level there are some benefits to this but in his words:

What we might call the “psychologization” of Buddhism tends to de-emphasize its ethical precepts, community life and awakening itself, all of which are central aspects of Buddhism in its Asian context. This is especially true of the mindfulness movement, which extracts one technique from a tradition that has so much more to offer, including a deeper transformative insight into one’s true nature.

He puts it so well I continue the quote:

Without denigrating such practices, we need to ask: Do psychological and mindfulness approaches help to develop an awakened society that pursues social and ecological justice? How do they address the challenge of growth-oriented corporations that are damaging the sustainability of life on Earth? Is Western Buddhism being commodified into a self-help and stress-reduction program that does not raise questions about consumerism and our dysfunctional economic system, but helps us adapt to them?

from Balancing heaven and earth

To me Loy is raising some important questions, ones I will continue to explore. It seems I have found my spiritual home at last – well I had it before on an inner level but it was so ineffable that  I found it difficult to frame intellectually. I feel  a great sense of relief and  now understand why I have never felt ‘at home’ with certain lineages of mindfulness such as the ones  working from a ‘mindfulness science’ orientation include mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy (MBCBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

These programs are in the main created around mindfulness of the breath sitting practices that take effort, time, practice and preparation and have been have been described by Dunne (2004) as ‘systematic’, ‘technical’ and ‘manualised’ with set practices, timelines and developmental trajectories.

I have always struggled with linear approaches – to anything. I need something that is more flexible, accessible, with space for complexity,contradiction, realisation, synchronicity. I know that many people really need order, structure, consistency and that is where they can flower. Not for me, I feel stifled. I guess this connects with learning styles too, we do have preferences, it’s not a one-size fits all situation. Of course one style does tend to be more powerful, recognised and valued as being somehow more rigorous or consistent and it always helps if you can measure something if you are seeking funding!

I am so much more comfortable with an alternative approach to mindfulness already deeply familiar to me as a long time meditator is ‘non dual’ mindfulness which Dunne (2004) sees as somewhat ‘contrarian’, standing as it does outside mainstream concepts of mindfulness. I think I have been referred to as ‘contrarian’ on more than one occasion actually!  I guess to me it was so alternative I didn’t see how I could bring it in to the mainstream. It is however given its own chapter in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s latest edited book on mindfulness so it has a place at the academic table!

Non-dualism is oriented towards a change of perspective or a different way of seeing (Pillar, 2007). Practices are adjusted to suit individual propensities and capacities, with an inherent suspicion of systematizing and an openness to the process being intuitive and effortless, something I am certainly drawn to. 

In the non dual approach mindfulness capacity is understood to already be present within the individual waiting to be catalyzed by the presence of someone who has already had experience of the state of non duality – a’ primordial, natural awareness’ (http://undividedjournal.com/about-the-journal)- in which all things are understood to be connected and not separate, while at the same time retaining their individuality.

In the spiritual teacher Krishnamurti’s words:

To bring about a radical transformation in society and oneself, the observer must  undergo a tremendous change- that is to realize that the observer and the observed  are one (1970, p 97).

In scientific fields there has been a recognition of the ‘observer’ effect but this does not seem to have yet been taken up in mainstream psychology which is embracing mindfulness at a rate that exceeds understanding in my view.

It is good to see though that there is some nuance appearing in the field with some critical discussion. I look forward to contributing to the literature on non dual mindfulness in education, I found a lovely book the other day on non dualism and drama and theatre in education (Pillay, K. (2007). Nondualism and educational drama and theatre. South Africa: Noumenon Press).

I can now see that participants in my latest mindfulness research did not only experience a shift in their thinking and behavior but also tapped into their  own innate wisdom, and as well, experienced greater openness and refinement of their entire being. I now want to take my mindfulness research to the next stage, since I have found that once the process has been catalyzed and it has sufficiently taken hold a  new consciousness gradually begins to pervade one’s internal and external experience as a unified whole, transcending the boundary of the individual self.

Of course I have also experienced changes  through the process of conducting the research (into the literature and in the field) – since as Bentz and Rehorick (2008) found through their transformative phenomenological research, the inquirer is also changed in the research process. This has continued to deepen within me which is reflected in my writings in this blog over the last 15 months or so.

thanks for reading!

love Leigh

Are you an ‘edge walker’?

edgewalker

Recently I started reading one of those books which I made an instant connection with and didn’t need to read the whole thing because I ‘got’ its message so strongly. I realised straight away that my role in education could  easily be characterized by the term ‘edgewalker’. Leadership and business scholar Judith Neal (2008) describes edgewalkers as ‘connectors’ who take risks, build bridges between different paradigms, cultures, world views and realities and break new ground.  This role  doesn’t come without its own challenges  though since edgewalkers tend to  experience frustration with traditional systems! However it does seem to come with the capacity  to  think outside the square, interpret new trends such as mindfulness, translate messages across disciplines, professions and agencies  and problem solve in the aim of increasing our ability to  communicate across difference. According to the philosopher, feminist  and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray (2008) this is the most important thing we have to learn and teach.

Neal says:

Edgewalkers are people who walk between worlds, and build bridges between different world views. Edgewalkers are the architects of the future. They are the visionaries, the connectors of people, ideas and actions, the ones who trust their intuition and commit to live according to their values. Edgewalkers are guided by a spirit of freedom and respect. 

She says edgewalkers have qualities such as:

1.  Self-awareness

2.  Passion

3.  Integrity

4.  Vision

5.  Playfulness

And that they have skills in the following five areas:

1.  Knowing the future

2.  Risk-taking

3.  Manifesting

4.  Focusing

5.  Connecting

I think I would have to add sensitivity.

I thought you might like to do Neal’s quiz.

ARE YOU AN EDGEWALKER?*

Check the statements that you agree with. Neal says if you agree with 12 or more, you are probably an Edgewalker – and a higher score increases the odds.

  1. I have a strong spiritual life.
  2. I frequently feel different from most people.
  3. I seem to have an ability to sense coming trends before they emerge.
  4. I have an unusual combination of interests and passions.
  5. I have had mystical or spiritual experiences that have provided guidance in my everyday life and/or work.
  6. I speak more than one language or have deep familiarity with more than one culture.
  7. I have made, or am contemplating, a major career
    shift that no one would have predicted.
  8. I often find myself being a bridge or “translator” for people from very different backgrounds.
  9. I have this feeling that I was called to do something very special and important in the world.
  10. I find myself attracted to and wanting to learn from people who are very different from me.
  11. I am strongly aware of the problems of the whole planet (global warming, destruction of rain forests, overpopulation, exploitation of people in poorer countries) and want to see some more action on them.
  12. People often see me as a leader, even though I am  different from most of the people who have been leaders
    in this organization.
  13. I have the ability to listen beyond the words that are spoken.
  14. I consciously tune into something higher than myself for  guidance and inspiration.
  15. It is extremely important to me that my work be aligned with my deepest values.
  16. I have artistic abilities or unusual gifts that I combine with down-to-earth practical skills.
  17. I tend to bend the rules if I think it is for a higher purpose.
  18. People often see me as a risk-taker, but the things I do don’t seem risky to me.  Somehow I just know they will work out.
  19. I have a strong sense of adventure.
  20. I find myself exploring new ideas and wondering about what the next new thing is in my field or area of interest.

*From Edgewalkers:  People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground (Praeger 2006) by Judi Neal.

I would love to hear back from you how many of you scored 12 or more-  either on the blog or by email I suspect there would be a view of us!

Doing the quiz made me feel a bit easier about some of my characteristics….

Leigh

Opening Pandora’s box – this time with cartoons!

There was once an urn, a mighty jar (only later called a box), which had always been forbidden to be opened, for the sake of the whole world. It contained powers beyond human capacity to understand and control. These are all the gifts of life and death, which Gaia alone can give, as the Mother of All. But Pandora, not knowing what she was doing, seeing it, opened it, and out came all the troubles known to mortals: sicknesses by day and by night, old age, harsh toil and death. Only Hope did not fly out, remaining under the lip of the jar, as Pandora put the lid back just in time.

Dear friends

I came across the expression ‘opening Pandora’s box’ in relation to my work in mindfulness yet again today. It firstly popped up in a journal by a research participant, a teacher who wrote:

Since I have allowed myself to stop, it’s as if the lid of Pandora’s box has beenopened and years of anxieties, fears and stresses have blown out. I really don’t know how I managed to hold that particular group for 2 years. All of the stresses that I was holding in to cope have been flooding out.

Then when I was in the states recently and we were doing our washing in a laundromat in Blacksburg, Virginia (they had the best laundromat reading I have ever seen, mostly New Yorker and Smithsonian magazines! I guess that’s what you get in a town based around a higher education institution…) I saw a cartoon about Pandora’s box

bruce-eric-kaplan-i-hope-pandora-doesn-t-already-have-a-box-of-mankind-s-evils-new-yorker-cartoon

Then I decided to call a recent chapter on mindfulness ‘Opening Pandora’s box- the contribution of mindfulness to individual and institutional being and becoming’ for the book  ‘Teaching with spirit’ on innovation in Steiner education I am editing with a colleague.

That same week  I found myself signing up to Pandora radio and making my own play lists (listening to Tim Buckley’s ‘Once I was….’ as I write)  Apparently Pandora was given a gift of music by the gods and for their radio name Pandora Media liked the combined implications of the word “Pandora” in terms of both music and curiosity.

roz-chast-pandora-s-music-box-new-yorker-cartoon

Then in my research for a new paper on mindfulness and  wisdom  I encountered Pandora’s box again. Caitln Matthews reminds us that the box was actually a jar, with the word for jar (pithos ) apparently mistranslated by Erasmus into box (pyxis) . She says that since the Greeks used the word pithos (jar) for funerary vessels Pandora’s jar is actually the womb of the goddess, as the giver of life and the receiver of the dead. Therefore she says, Pandora (whose name means All-endowed) did not inflict evil on humanity  through naive curiosity but rather opened the womb of the goddess and gave birth to many possibilities. She goes further and sees this as the guiding hand of Sophia who leads us on tortuous paths until we see and manifest wisdom in our lives – holding back hope that we can access to  sustain us on the journey once we have awakened.

And then, today in my reading in preparation for my new mindfulness in education topic I read in a paper by cognitive psychology professor Eleanor Rosch ( it has a great name - More than mindfulness: When you have a tiger by the tail let it eat you) who asks: What have we learned about mindfulness?:

When Brown et al define mindfulness as a receptive awareness they have (unknowingly) opened a Pandora’s box. Far from a simple technique or type of consciousness that we might call mindfulness, we are dealing with an entire mode of knowing and of being in the world composed of many interdependent synergistic facets which are simultaneously ways of entering the whole and themselves part of the enlightened awareness itself.

These include a relaxation and expansion of awareness, a letting go even into deep states of not knowing, access to wisdom knowing beyond what we think of as consciousness or the mind and an open hearted inclusive warmth toward all of experience and to the world.

It also includes one’s deepest intentions to oneself, other people and the world. It includes ones action and ways of living. The teacher, teachings and community of other practitioners are all part of this tapestry with the direct (mind to mind) transmissions of the teacher )made possible because of interdependence) assuming a central role.

Any of these aspects can be entry points as well as essentials in the whole, and different traditions specialise in starting students in different ways: calming and relaxation, compassion, devotion, study cleaning up one’s life, intentions, service, vows, mindfulness practice, body practices, identifying with enlightened energies, creative activities – even up to receiving transmission of the primordial wisdom itself. It is against this background that we can look at mindfulness based research (p261).

Rosch goes on to write about a cartoon also from the New Yorker magazine in which Pandora is shown ‘walking demurely through airline luggage screening as the screeners stare bug-eyed in amazement at the images in her dainty suitcase.

robert-leighton-pandora-s-carry-on-new-yorker-cartoon

She suggests that we also may ‘marvel’ at how the numerous elements of mindfulness just described as aspects of enlightened awareness are incorporated into the systems we are most familiar with such the various alphabet approaches: MBSR, MBCT, DBT,  and ACT.  She says these all involve a lot more than simple techniques and I agree. ACT founder Steven Hayes had an epiphany while lecturing thus finding a way  through his anxiety to enlightened awareness and Marcia Linehan (DBT founder ) was incredibly depressed so much so she was almost suicidal, until she saw an angel and received an intuition about a new therapeutic approach. Kabat -Zinn (MBSR) also, has spoken of how much he preferred meditating in the lab rather than getting on with his PhD in one of the sciences. The approaches are all deeply informed directly by the originators and their world views and experiences and indirectly by  those who inspired them.

I am grateful to Brown and colleagues for opening up Pandora’s box around mindfulness definitions just a chink and to Rosch for taking the lid right off! I intend to carry on as she has begun, full of hope and optimism about the task ahead, so thank you to Pandora as well for keeping Hope intact. 

Leigh

PS I wanted to include the cartoon below, I don’t quite know why but I really like it!

love, Leigh

edward-koren-i-like-you-in-that-one-it-gives-you-an-aura-of-mindfulness-new-yorker-cartoon

Mindfulness, learning and the love of wisdom

Hi again everyone

We often hear stories of teacher stress and burnout but I read the other day of  study published in 2013 that has found that academics now experience considerable higher levels of psychological stress than those in the wider population. It is a good job in many ways so what is going on? The authors suggest that  ‘academia remains “pretty macho” and that there is a sense that  ‘if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here.’ 

I have encountered this attitude in schools as well.

Has education become unbalanced? Too much head, not enough heart and hands?

Is there a role for mindfulness?  Of course I  think so but not simply because it can assist with managing and reducing stress. I think it’s much bigger and deeper  than that and that it  has to do with how we view knowledge. I love the way a PhD is a doctorate in philosophy. This means so much to me. But to me philosophy has to do with experiencing the  love of wisdom, not just about talking about a love of wisdom.The term philosophy is taken from the Greek word, (phileo) meaning “to love” or “to befriend” and , (Sophia) meaning “wisdom.” Thus, ‘the love of wisdom’  Socrates, used the term philosophy as an equivalent to the search for wisdom. Similarly by extension,  Rudolf Steiner’s term ‘anthroposophy’ , meaning wisdom of the human being.

It is the love of learning, the search for wisdom that sustains me, not the amount of publications or citations I have. I do wonder if the increased stress academics are experiencing has to do with the excessively rationalist path we seem to be taking in all levels of education. Would we be requiring Plato to meet publication quotas?

My reading of the pre-Socratic philosophers is increasingly persuading me of the truth of those memorable lines by T S Eliot:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

As I have mentioned before I see a need for greater  sanctuary and community in universities, as well as a need to recognise other ways of knowing including the intuitive and empathic. After attending a particularly rationalistic committee meeting at the university a little while ago I dreamt that evening  of a bodiless head, cut off at the neck, placed on a table, people were trying to push it off the edge but I tried to stop them, in the moment of falling the head suddenly acquired an ugly little body, male.

I have pondered on this dream, talked about it with friends who shared their interpretations. With some distance and some reading on the pre-Socratics and the split between reason and intuition that occurred in ancient Greek times I have come to see it as a sign of what I see as imbalance in the university and our educational institutions more broadly. I also see it as being about a certain lack of care in some cases.

Mindfulness can be of assistance in helping us adapt to challenging circumstances by increasing our ability to breathe, calm ourselves, detach from sensory experience as in the Eastern tradition based in Buddhist philosophy.

Or in more Western style it can be something like what the ancient Greeks called ‘metis’ – an intense mix of awareness, practical wisdom, skill, craft and wise counsel.

The Greek goddess Metis was seen as a ‘Titaness of wisdom and deep thought’ who was both a threat to the god Zeus and at the same time ‘an indispensable aid’ (Brown 1952). Sometimes this is how I see my role in education!

I am most certainly passionate about both academic rigour and intuitive insight and see the potential of mindfulness to help us go within and bring forward a different type of wisdom for consideration so as to begin to  bridge these different ways of knowing. As academic  midwife and holistic educator  Pam England writes in  ‘Birthing from within’

 There is one kind of learning that comes from books but another kind comes from within….listening to what is within as an active gentle exploration process not only brings overlooked resources and strengths to conscious awareness but identifies obstacles and inhibitions that might prevent you from using them. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595018

Now that my inner life is sufficiently steadied and grounded in my body perhaps I can begin to more explicitly bring some of this thinking to my work in higher education.  Working with colleagues across my university in mindfulness workshops and receiving their emails documenting their concerns and challenges tells me this work is necessary if universities are to continue to offer any opportunity for genuine inquiry into the nature of knowledge and hopefully, wisdom.

Any thoughts, please let me know!

love Leigh

 

New mindfulness in education research project

Dear colleagues

I wanted to let you know that I am just beginning to think about what my next mindfulness in education research project might look like. I have had a few people get in touch saying they are keen to participate.

I probably need about 15-20 participants to make it worthwhile for us all. I am thinking it would involve meeting once a week for around 5 or 6 weeks, with mindfulness philosophy and practice, conversation and journalling. The idea would be that you would use the mindfulness focus to inquire into an aspect of your practice, whether to do with curriculum, pedagogy, relationships, leadership, collaboration , children at risk or any aspect of personal/professional development relating to your work as an educator.

I am especially interested at the moment in the links between mindfulness, wellbeing, intuition, flow and relationality but I am open to your suggestions as well.

If you are a primary or secondary teacher in Adelaide, preferably in the north east area  or prepared to travel to that area and you are interested in being part of such a project please email me as soon as possible as I will need to begin the ethics process and won’t do this until I have enough interested people.

leigh.burrows@flinders.edu.au If you would like me to phone you just email me your contact details.

Hope to hear from some of you…. if you are interstate and interested perhaps still email and we can explore possibilities for an online project.

Also, there are still some places in the Mindfulness Intensive post graduate topic which can be taken as part of a post graduate course or as a stand-alone topic.

regards Leigh

Home again

Dear friends

Well it seems as if I have hit the ground running and got straight back into tasks upon my return. Having a stopover in Dubai meant we haven’t had a problem with jetlag but I have felt a bit disoriented at times, waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing where I was!

I have been working on a chapter for a book on innovation in Steiner education  I am editing with a colleague. For the chapter  I have had another look at the data I gathered from a mindfulness project with Steiner teachers and leaders  to see how my understanding of mindfulness has evolved and also to position myself as researcher. more openly in the research than previously.

I have also begun thinking about my upcoming masters topic on Mindfulness in the School of Education at Flinders University, as mentioned previously on this blog. I had thought of beginning with asking participants to define mindfulness as they understand it without using the word mindfulness.

It seems to be me that a lot more clarifying work needs to be done, especially now mindfulness is so popular and now it is beginning to be challenged as these recent article titles suggest Mindfulness won’t make you a better parent and Can mindfulness backfire? I think both these articles which while popular do draw on academic studies (particularly the second one) really highlight how we need to be much more clear what the term means.

In this article the findings from a  study on mindfulness  were presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego on November 12, 2013. The study’s senior investigator, Darlene Howard, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of psychology and member of the Georgetown Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery. Mindfulness is defined as ‘thinking about thinking’ and the researchers say they found it interfered with the learning of implicit skills. Implicit learning is the more intuitive internalised kind of learning we draw on for many tasks and activities that are so well learned and practised we do not require a conscious, explicit and  intellectualised process. I was speaking with an emergency dept physician a while ago and he said when someone comes in from an accident there is not enough time for that kind of response which is much slower.

Anyhow the researchers seemed to equate mindfulness with being overly cerebral which is not quite how I see it. 

However this did remind me of the work of ancient Greek scholar Peter Kingsley who argues that Plato twisted the teachings of his mentor Parmenides and turned them from instructions received via intuitive means into rational arguments. In this way Plato began the Western project which has led to the belief that we can get to the truth of something  through thinking when the way I see it we need to enter into a deeper meditative stage to access anything like truth.

This also links to Kingsley’s notion that we need two forms of meditation- I think I have mentioned this already- one for the day and one for the night, since if we do not practise the more letting go surrender type we are likely to develop a certain hypervigilance which can act as an obstacle to accessing  deeper states of consciousness.

 I think this helps me to understand my gut feeling that the essential nature of mindfulness is not understood for many researchers which is naturally going to cause great confusion and skewed findings. I recall Paul Grossman’s keynote at the Mindfulness Science and Practice conference I attended in Melbourne last year, where he made the observation that mindfulness scales in themselves were fine but he didn’t think what they were measuring was actually mindfulness! If researchers have not themselves accessed deeper and higher states of consciousness and see mindfulness as being more like meta-cognition I do not think the field is going to be progressed very far and may go right off course.

I’ve certainly deepened my understanding of mindfulness since I started this blog a little over a year ago.While my earlier interest was more focused on the potential of mindfulness to assist with emotionally challenging situations I now find myself more interested  in the way mindfulness can assist us to give up everyday thinking and intellectualism to allow for a higher thinking to emerge, in freedom. This notion of a higher kind of thinking, that is not thinking about thinking but of a higher order, more like intuition, but approached scientifically as a self  inquiry  is what initially led me to the work of Rudolf Steiner , and now more recently, integral philosopher Aurobindo.

As Ben-Aharon reminds us, for  Steiner freedom had to do with a ‘thorough overcoming of the intellect’ or intellectual thinking via the development of intuitive thinking (2007, p13). For example, Steiner (1894) took the view that we can act either out of the compulsions of our natural being (reflexes, drives, desires) or out of compelled (by self or other) ethical principles, but that neither of these leaves us free. He saw that between these lies individual insight (and individuality)  that arises neither from abstract principles nor from our bodily impulses . This space I think relates to my appreciation a while ago that mindfulness was the missing piece in Choice Theory ( originally a therapeutic approach for adults and now more commonly a behaviour management approach for young people which has another missing piece in my view, an understanding of child development).  

In Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding conditioned conceptual knowledge is  an obstacle and a threat to inner development. This would connect with the study referred to above where if mindfulness becomes ‘over-thinking’ is becomes an impediment to implicit forms of learning.

This  raises questions for me about what conditions are necessary in order for us to develop this capacity for individual insight through transcending intellectual thinking.   Do  children have the capacity to exercise conscious choice when they have not yet attained the capacity for conceptual knowing or completed their physical development? Can or should the stage of intellectual thinking be skipped? Surely we need to fully experience the fruits of intellectual thinking even if it takes us away from the more intuitive kind of thinking naturally but unconsciously possessed by children?  These are important questions in the light of the current popularity of mindfulness  programs for children.

Of course, comments most welcome, even if you really disagree as someone did with a recent post  on my other blog Creating calmer classrooms !

http://leighburrows.net/2014/02/11/taking-on-giants-the-potential-benefits-of-challenges-such-as-mental-health-problems-disability-learning-difficulties-and-addictions/

love Leigh

Letter (post) on leaving America

Dear friends and colleagues

Thank you so much for your comments and emails, it means more than I can express here that so many of you enjoy reading these reflections. I am still at the higher education pedagogy conference, in a space before the final keynote which should be interesting as its focus is on the importance of tacit knowing in the learning process. We shared a cab with the speaker from the airport to the hotel and it was interesting to hear her perspective that more innovation was occurring in the faculty of Business and Leadership than in Education.

I would like to recount a recent example of the need for mindfulness – in – action! My more recent work in mindfulness as I think I have already mentioned has been around the contribution some ancient Greek philosopher made to this field, something that seems to have been rather lost in that process of translation – history. I have been particularly enamoured of Socrates notion of mindfulness assisting with what has been more recently translated by scholars as ‘existential preparedness’. I really needed some of this!

I looked at the clock on the day of my presentation on mindfulness and thought I had better check the room, seating,lighting, technology, at least 15 minutes or so before. All were fine, so I sat down and waited for people to come along. At the appointed hour,no one came… I thought perhaps they were held up so I continued to sit.. for another 10 minutes or so. Someone went past and looked in, perhaps curiously. I was aware of conflicting sensations, on the one hand a sense of disappointment, rejection, embarrassment, and on the other an awareness that this was an opportunity to stay present, stay with a deeper awareness and acceptance of the situation and these emotions.

I went down to tell my partner who was waiting downstairs … he seemed surprised to see me so soon, I proceeded to tell him that no-one came to my session, when mid-sentence I realized the session was not for another hour- we were still in an extraordinarily long lunch period. I had to laugh!

Next time I went up, 10 minutes early this time, the room was steadily filling. People kept arriving, I found a few more chairs, someone dragged in a bench, an organiser brought in a bunch of chairs, and people settled in to sit or stand and the organiser firmly shut the door and announced the session was closed!

As with the talks in New Hampshire I found participants to be extremely engaged, interested, eager to participate and again,many came up to shake hands and thank me. I was quite overwhelmed in a way at the positive responses. I do feel that mindfulness is perhaps a little further along in the states so people are maybe more ready for a critical consideration. That this is needed is evidenced by the front cover of Time magazine that showed a white, blonde woman meditating a la Buddhism. Apparently around 8 years ago the same magazine ran a similar cover which led a Huffington Post writer to wonder how much America had progressed in terms of its understanding of mindfulness.

One participant who is in the process of establishing a contemplative education institute in her university spoke to me about how she appreciated the nuanced I brought to the subject, while another woman spoke of a recent shooting at her community college and how she felt that there was a need for more inner work in higher education such as I was proposing to help us respond and support faculty, students and parents in such events. There have apparently been a number of shootings in higher ed institutions in this area. When we visited a local historical house, home to 3 governors of the state of Virginia our guide was still visibly shaken by the Virginia Tech shootings a few years ago and she wondered why it keeps happening, and what have they done to deserve it?

This is of course an interesting question and relates to what I have been saying about the need to travel down into the depths. I am not quite sure if I see it as the shadow as this does tie in more with therapy and the ‘talking cures’ which is a different route to meditation I feel, but it does certainly relate, and to the notion of karma, not as punishment or retribution but as awareness of what we have done to others in our journey towards Western enlightenment and ‘freedom’. I was moved by the way our guide, an historian specialising in the American Civil War spoke with compassion, circumspection, awareness and intelligence of the relationship between the family who lived in the house we visited and their slaves. She said that many of the children asked about the people who were in many ways part of the family and much loved. She said of course this does not excuse anything, but she said that these matters are not ‘black and white’ and that a number of African-Americans who had had forebears who were enslaved are becoming interested in exploring this history in a different way than previously. She is presently organising a reunion of family members of the original family and is writing to as many people related to the slaves who served the family to invite them too and some have replied already, indicating they will attend. I have not been able to uncover too much evidence of this kind of reconciliation though in relation to the American Indians, and lets face it we have a rather long way to go in this regard to in relation to our indigenous people, the Australian Aboriginals.

I have certainly been reminded of the importance of context since I have been here, and how some things are very similar and some quite different which should perhaps encourage us to be more cautious in Australia of uncritically adopting ideologies, philosophies and frameworks that may be more suitable, and needed, here than at home. People seem to appreciate Australian’s directness, and I have been appreciating American’s politeness. I have never before encountered so many polite young people holding the door open for me, thanking me when I do the same for them. Its been nice to have so many people tell me my colorful leggings are ‘cool’, ‘amazing’ and ‘adorable’ as well!

Enough for now, nearly time for the keynote and then we head off to the local airport, and then to Washington!

Its been a fantastic trip, so much learning, it will take a while to come to digest it I think!

love Leigh

Blogging in Boston on the night of the Super Bowl

Dear friends

We leave Boston tomorrow for Blacksburg, Virginia and I am sitting in a bar in our hotel with the Superbowl distracting my partner’s attention so I thought I would make a post before we leave. A couple of you have emailed me that you are somewhat envious of my travels but I would like to mention that I did  travelled outside Australia before I turned 40! In fact I don’t think we took a trip away from our children for about 20 years so there is hope for everyone!

I wrote in my last post from New York about how moved I was by the 9/11 Memorial. There seems to be a theme running here for me in this trip because when we first came to Boston on the very first night I encountered another memorial, this time for the Holocaust. This memorial consists of six glass towers that we walked through. Engraved on the outside walls of each tower are groups of numbers representing Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.Inscribed on the inner walls are quotes from survivors of each camp. Underneath the towers, steam rises up through metal grates from a dark floor with twinkling lights on it. I found the steam rising within the towers extremely disturbing, to me there seemed little hope of redemption, unlike the still, dark and potentially transformative underworld conveyed to me through the majesty of the New York memorial. The Boston one stayed with me for a number of days and I asked someone who had attended one of my talks who I did think may be Jewish how he found the memorial. He said he thought it had to do with never forgetting what happened. On our return to Boston from Concord we walked past it a number of times and it was never as disturbing as it was that first night when we walked through it late at night with snow falling all around.

When I was in Concord I was struck in my dream life by how close we were to the state of Connecticut (we actually travelled through this state on our train journey from New York to Boston) where the Sandy Hook school shooting took place a year or so ago. I felt such a strong connection with the community, sensing the degree of fear that must still be present. Another very moving experience. Then back to Boston where in Boston Common just down the road from the hotel an elm tree that was used to hang witches still stands.

We walked the ‘freedom trail’ yesterday, such a rich history of challenging some ideas and accepting others.. reminds me of the state motto on the registration plates in New Hampshire: ‘Live free or die’. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant so I asked the hairdresser, various academics, a Birkenstock shop owner and  Steiner and college students. Not all of them knew, the hairdresser googled it for me in between cutting my hair while telling me that in their state people didn’t worry too much about gay marriage were fifty-fifty on abortion and were very pro the right to bear arms, the shoe shop guy and Steiner teacher knew  it had to do with the American revolution and the sense that we should be prepared to die for our principles, the students thought it had to do with there being less rules in New Hampshire and interestingly they all thought that minimal state intervention was good as otherwise the state might interfere with the right to carry a gun.I did hear from a secondary Steiner  school teacher and college professor that the state did not provide enough intervention and supports for those with mental health difficulties and disabilities.

And now, tomorrow we are off to Virginia Tech where another shooting took place a few years ago…. this was not intentional when we planned the trip but it does seem to connect very directly with my reflections on the importance of going down deep into the unconscious and shining the light on our individual and collective shadows. A woman in one of my Concord talks looked visibly shaken when I mentioned this but if we do not acknowledge the depths and stay forever in the light, the happiness, the joy,the kindness and the warmth then the darkness will remain untouched,untransformed and un-illuminated. I feel North America is just that bit further ahead, the comments and discussion after a public mindfulness talk for the delightfully named ‘Wings of Knowledge’ group were of a depth and sophistication I have not yet encountered at home. I felt the attendees were hungry though for a critical, more deconstructive approach that took account of power, developmental,discipline and context issues around mindfulness and education.

It’s been a wonderful trip so far in terms of my own learning and my sense of the global relevance of and need for  a more nuanced, holistic and critical understanding and practice of mindfulness that is conscious of its origins, whether eastern or western, or potentially, an authentic hybrid.

The Super Bowl event ( Interestingly I keyed this in in lower case letters but the software program changed it immediately into title case) is still on,I think its a boy band at intermission, one of many ad breaks. I am not into football at all but all of a sudden I think I see the attraction of Aussie Rules!

I will post again from Blacksburg Virginia, where I am speaking at a higher education pedagogy conference. The weather is relatively mild today  - 10 degrees, compared to the sometimes minus 16 we had some days!

I apologise for any errors in advance, a combination of not having my mouse, having a glass of wine and having the Superbowl on loudly in the background!

love Leigh

Letter (post) from America

Dear friends and colleagues

I have given this post this title in honour of a writer and journalist I used to like to listen to many years ago, Alistair Cook who used to read his weekly ‘letter from America’ on ABC radio in his wonderful melodious voice…

I am so enjoying being in America, New York so far…. I love its diversity. This morning we went to a cafe called Jack’s Stir Brew in Greenwich Village, the woman sitting next to us had a copy of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and  a copy of Annotations on Finnegan’s Wake and she seemed to be making her own annotations as well in tiny writing on the text, taking sips of coffee from time to time. In another cafe a guy was reading something that looked very literary, in Russian. There seems to be rich intellectual scene in Lower Manhattan.

I am in the US to give 5 talks on mindfulness which I half prepared before I came, thinking there would  mostly likely need to be some adjustments when I arrived. I think I mentioned in my last post that I have been reflecting on the work of the historian and philosopher Peter Kingsley who believes that in the West we are on a course of forgetfulness, a course of not understanding our sacred origins. He suggests that we tend to romanticise the sacred origins of for example Tibetan Buddhist (and this is particularly relevant given the appeal of the Dalai Lama in our times) or South American traditions, any tradition almost, unless it is our own.

I support Kingsley’s view that it is not until we have a firm grounding in our own Western sacred tradition, that lies at the origins of Western science, philosophy, thinking, then we can properly relate to other sacred traditions. Otherwise we could be engaging in a kind of cultural/spiritual tourism where we cherry pick those aspects of a tradition we can live with and jettison those we cannot.

I finished reading Kingsley’s book Reality just before landing in New York and it has really stayed with me. We are staying in Tribeca and I did not quite realise just how close it was to the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Centre The first night I was aware of feeling a lot of fear around me and I dreamt of dead bodies. A couple of days later we went to visit the memorial which I found deeply moving. It is an amazing creation, featuring 2 square black voids set amidst a reflecting pool of water and surrounding waterfalls. Only one was accessible that day…. I was struck by the stillness, power and beauty of this abyss, paradoxically the rushing water serves to intensify the contemplative nature of the space.

I had been thinking about the ancient Greek myths about the underworld and Kingsley’s reminder that we need to go deep beneath the surface of ourselves to find true knowledge, and that mostly we skim across the surface, not really knowing our purpose. The pool seemed to symbolize the journey into the depths for me. When I visited the memorial shop I learned of the Survivor Tree, another powerful symbol,this time of resilience since this tree was found still alive under some rubble, nurtured back to health, then uprooted and nurtured again, and now going strong. I thought of Kingsley’s reminder that for the ancient Greeks the journey into the underworld, facing the darkness in ourselves in order to find the light is a journey towards immortality…

When I came back to the hotel I wanted to find out more about the Michael Arad the  architect who designed the pools.I found a fascinating article  taken from the book Makers of Modern Architecture by Martin Filler has integrated the architect’s unique biography and character and examined the cultural, economic and political context in which he worked for the 9/11 Memorial. Apparently Arad had proposed a more spatially complex version that

  expanded the squares into subterranean cubic memorial chambers open to the sky and enhanced with curtain-like vertical fountains. Visitors would have been able to proceed down to the bottom of the pools, which were to have been ringed by walkways, the walls behind them inscribed with the names of the dead, with the central square pools shrouded by cascades of water pouring down steadily from above.

For a variety of budgetary, infrastructural, and security reasons he  was forced to abandon his initial idea of the below-ground memorial chambers accessible to the public, which he compared to Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, “a vast emptiness that you cannot enter but can only contemplate as you look into the void.”

He  was naturally very upset at this turn of events and  decided he had two choices to walk away and resign from the project (his design had been chosen from a field of over 5,200) or he could come up with an alternative solution that ‘retained the spiritual essence of his initial idea’.

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I believe he has been able to do this and I found I had the kind of ‘descent into the underworld’ experience he was hoping for. It has been a powerful experience and has me continuing to reflect on East and West. I didn’t have my copy of Barry Long’s book on terrorism where he predicted something along the lines of 9/11 would happen but I looked up an excerpt on the BL website and found these chilling words:

The terrorists’ motivations cannot be comprehended by the conventional mind or western attitudes because they operate at a subconscious level; they represent a new psychological phenomenon rising out of the unconscious in man. Its only purpose is to destroy the certainty of the westernised mind.

Every terrorist act has a subliminal message that lodges somewhere in the human psyche…..There is no conventional power-drive in this kind of terrorism, no personal reward apart from death. As the precursors of an approaching new culture, paranational terrorists tend to come into western civilisation from the geographical East. Where the westernisation process is most advanced and the social conscience is most likely to be outraged is where terrorism will strike most hideously and most often.

Kingsley writes of the ancient Greek belief that the forces of Love and of Strife were needed for evolution and that if we  did not make a conscious descent into the underworld we would be ruled by the darkness.

Kingsley writes:

We can look to the East if we want for the sense of meaning and direction lost in the West. But to find freedom there from the turmoil of the West , its intelligent chaos, is ultimately to only end up more bound. Trying to escape from our civilisation can offer not real solution. What is needed more than anything else is to penetrate to the roots of this western world and release the wisdom that has been waiting there for so long.

I have a real sense of the truth of these words and will write more about my perceptions in the coming weeks as I make more sense of my experiences…..

In this neck of the woods they say ‘keep warm’, at home we say ‘keep cool’…. so wherever you are as you read this, choose the one that is right for you!

love Leigh

PS I haven’t referenced Kingsley and Long properly but am happy to do so if you would like me to when I get home.

PS II I hope there are not too many errors in the above….this is something very fresh…

PS III Please do respond if you feel to,many of you say to me in person or by email ‘I was going to respond but’ … I understand of course but its great to have your ideas on the actual blog…

 

 

The river of (un) mindfulness …..

 

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Dear friends

It has been wonderful to have had the  time and space lately to meditate, dream, daydream, read, reflect… and not write!

As a way of easing back into some writing I am writing this post without any referencing going against the grain for an academic! but then I don’t feel so much like an academic as this time of the year. I do need to get my talks and workshops on mindfulness in Concord and Blacksburg in the US ready though as the day of departure (19th January) draws near.

I have recently come to the realisation that mindfulness is a technique not a state. I struggle with the notion of technique as it sounds too, well, technical, and I am interested in intuition. I feel though that I have finally grasped the meaning of mindfulness in the sense that it has something to do with remembering. Mindfulness practice and exercises (which for me have more to do with sensing the inner body than the breath as I feel the breath sorts itself out along the way) is something that helps us to remember to get back into the stream of conscious awareness, or life, rather than lose ourselves in the river of unmindfulness (from Plato’s Republic) or death.

 

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I see clearly now that mindfulness is a technique that can help us reach the primordial state in which subject and object dissolve and we are both an individual and part of the whole. When I began meditating in a manner which I now see is close to the ancient Greek idea of incubation, in which you let go of your normal egoic self  ….. you lie down in a darkened room and let go of the senses and enter into an inner world of depth and stillness. This comes close to what both Kingsley and Ben-Aharon see as a night-time consciousness.  This was the space I drew on for my teaching preparation when I was a Steiner teacher and I found I could enter into the main lesson content very deeply, whether it was Egyptian, Sumerian, or Ancient Greek. This state was not particularly practical as a day-time consciousness (once again Kingsley and Ben-Aharon write about this)  when I was challenged by a parent or colleague and old undigested emotions like fear and anger rose up and dominated by consciousness such that I did not manage my emotions well.

After a time I stopped doing the really deep meditations and began to address some of the daytime issues that were arising. After getting to know my thinking, emotional and sensing life more intimately…. it was getting hard to ignore them as they got louder and louder!…. I realised that mindfulness practices could be of benefit in catching myself going off on a tangent , not so often at first but gradually more and more often so I could bring myself back to a state of awareness, of oneness. The periods of oneness were quite short at first, then they began to lengthen. I became aware that certain things could shock me, jolt me out of this awareness and that this often related to what I felt was an invasion of my personal space. This was all so useful although painful at times. Just before Christmas when I was shopping in a very busy, very large supermarket I became aware that my state really was a choice, I could go off on a tangent with old somewhat cynical views about Christmas, commercialism, trivia, waste, stress, busyness, having to wait, having to witness irritating behaviour and people, or I could just switch gears and go int stillness right there in the midst of it all. And the stillness was so deep, so rich, like a wellspring of good will, or wellbeing that nourished me from within and as a result affected  how I interacted with others, how I spoke to staff, other customers, how I waited, how I walked, how I was….

For a few days after that I felt myself in that state and going out of that state and remembering it was in my power to flick the switch, doing so and realising that this state is always there, available to me and it is only my forgetfulness that separates me from it. For a few days since I have felt it with me pretty much all the time, although I could be remembering much more automatically so it is a much quicker process.

This space for me lies in the solar plexus, under the diaphragm and can be felt energetically. It is hard to describe it but I will try. I can feel it as I sit here and type. It feels a little like a kind of buzzing pins and needles, it feels like it has a grainy texture, that it could be a spherical shape, that it is warm and comforting and grounding. It feels like it has a pulse, that it is connected with all of life… I think this is where the primordial part comes in. I think I was aware of it in my various pregnancies but feeling it then was a bit disconcerting somehow, a bit close for comfort perhaps, without knowing, sensing quite what it was.

I find in the morning that sometimes I awake and it is there but more often when I wake up it is not there and I feel I am in that other gear which now does not feel like ‘me’ but feels like a reactive entity or reactive knot of past. I respond by shifting gears, meditating and at this time of the year I have been able to go back to sleep, let go into a kind of oceanic consciousness and when I wake again I am in the ‘right’ gear.

I have expressed this in my own words..  I wasn’t sure quite what I was going to write but in the typing it just came. It’s a different kind of knowledge when it comes from within, living, creative knowledge rather much of the writing about meditation and mindfulness which seems to me to be more focused on technique than actual experience.

The techniques are useful but they are only meant to get us going, they can serve us well for a time, but we need to outgrow them and find a more subtle steady state that can give us a sense of existential preparedness as Socrates wrote about, to help us face the exigencies of life.

I feel very pleased to have realised (inspired by Peter Kingsley’s work) that we need a day time form of meditation and a night-time form until the two streams come together and we begint to embody an integrated state of above and below, right and left, day and night, male and female, east and west, sun and moon….

If we focus on the night-time form, we do not have enough presence to tackle the challenges in our daily life. If we don’t have the night-time form though we don’t go deep enough, we don’t descend to the depth and bring back new knowledge in the form of intuition. As I write that when I do awaken, in the moment just before I become aware of what gear I am in I have been receiving messages about ideas to follow-up on in the day. I had bought a couple of Peter Kingsley’s books on Parmenides, Empedocles and their initiation into the feminine mysteries a few months ago but it was not until I heard his name within me as I awakened a couple of weeks ago that I realised how important his work was for mine. I just remembered that I received another message this morning, about EFT or emotional freedom technique, yes a technique and I am not mad about techniques but they clearly can be very helpful and so I think I should follow this up… if I can smooth the way a little for others I am very pleased too, for this work is indeed not an individual one to simply make us feel better,stronger, less stressed or conflicted, but more of a project for humanity.

I hope to be able to post from New York or Boston  next! Would love to hear from any of you about your experiences…

love Leigh