In what has become an occasional blog (but I will send another ‘letter from America’ as I did earlier this year when I return to the States in early 2015 to conduct mindfulness research in New Hampshire and present pre-conference and in conference workshops in Virginia) I find myself reflecting upon what I thinking of calling ‘natural mindfulness’.
This is something that has come to me as a result of including therapeutic puppet making and a puppet show in one of my topics at the university: ‘Creating calmer classrooms’ and having a conversation with a couple of my graduate students as well.
I was struck by the way a number of students appeared to fall into a naturally mindful state while making their puppet and viewing the wonderful puppet show led by Stargold Puppets for our workshops.
This perception was supported by feedback from some of the students:
I really enjoyed being able to just ‘do it’.
I felt it allowed me to simplify life and have just one focus.
I didn’t realise how soothing it could be to get fully engulfed by a story and follow the puppets every move.
It made me feel like a happy child.
The puppets created such a wonderful atmosphere ……in the room.
It showed us that as adults we still need time to enjoy making/playing/creating and that all we need is the opportunity.
The puppets were very enjoyable, I don’t find myself creative and I was worried about the activity but when we got going it was really fun.
Fun and therapeutic for us as well!
It made me feel like a happy child.
Enjoyed the puppets, I can see how healing they could be. I also loved making them – we need play even at a university level!
I realised that my puppet (from completely non artistic me) did actually represent an idea I am working with- this stuff works!
I really enjoyed the puppets. I love the freedom of communicating through the puppetry.
It was great to feel the sense of wonder/connection that can be achieved.
It was great for us to experience the importance of play, creativity and enjoyment and to remember how important it is for children as well!
I wonder if I would have been the same had I asked the students to be ‘mindful’, ‘aware’, ‘present’ during the performance and making? Or might they have felt inhibited, restricted, watching themselves, overly conscious.
I find that a state of inner stillness often just comes unbidden, as if by grace and that being intentional about it can seem desirous of an outcome, a bit like engaging in a technique to change behaviours, when sometimes all we have to do is change the environment and what is in it and people feel differently.
I remember doing a mandala activity for a ‘difficult’ class 6/7. Their teacher wanted them to ‘settle down’, be silent before I started, she was waiting for them to stop talking etc, yet I knew that the activity itself would be settling. I know pre-service teachers are often told they should wait for silence and compliance but I find this can set up an unnecessary power game at times, when we might as well get into the activity and see how the stillness arises, as if unbidden, naturally.
This relates to mindfulness practice as well, when people practice diligently in the hope that one day there will be a breakthrough. When maybe they would be more suited to going for a walk by the beach, or in the hills, or work in their garden, cook, sew, read, garden, paint, look after children, build a fence, grow crops, teach, lead, play, drive taxis or whatever it is that human beings do in their days.
I am interested in Peter Kingsley’s point that goal oriented (however subtle) mindfulness practice can lead to hyper vigilance and to difficulties in sleeping.
Yet moments of mindfulness or oneness can come upon on as if spontaneously… as happened tonight when I went for a walk and became aware of the reflection on the pond and the duck family traversing it and the beauty of this environment. i walked home with light all around me.
Sudden moments of realisation like this as Sam Harris says in his new book “Waking Up’ :
refuse to validate the point of view from which one would meditate or practice any other spiritual discipline.
As he says, in the deeper states there is no separation between ‘my’ self and the world around me, there is no ‘I’ who is observing myself in these moments, which are non-dual.
The self is dissolved or in a processing of dissolving in those moments… but somehow there is still an awareness of what we are experiencing on some level or we could not think, talk and write about these experiences as my students did….
I think in our zeal to practice mindfulness in particular ways at particular times and ‘improve’ ourselves, become more happy, accepting, non judgmental, peaceful, kind, loving etc we may overlook the very experience of stillness and freedom that can arise in the midst of our days when we least expect it.
We can get caught up in a race towards an illusory attainment of mindfulness, that paradoxically can prevent us realising in the present moment in a state or ordinary awareness, thus as Harris suggests, causing confusion.
Mindfulness practice focusing for example on the breath, or thoughts, or feelings, or sensations ironically has the potential to increase the sense of the mind and body being split as in Cartesian dualism, we can fel we are a subject, a locus of consciousness in the head, which can pay attention to another object of awareness.
Perhaps we need to grapple with these paradoxes before we can let go into a deeper state of consciousness that is non dual, not separate, yet is entwined with our awareness, it is not a cessation of self as is so often desired or promoted but nor is it a separate self or ego, this is what is meant by the term ‘not one, not two’.
Now that we have sat with our mindfulness practice a little longer we can begin to deconstruct its claims, processes, activities, challenges, and see it is not quite the panacea at first thought. Experimenting on ourselves is one thing and on another, another.. ..as I am keenly aware in my innersensing workshops. Experimenting on/with children requires even more care.. since developmentally they may not yet formed enough ‘self’ to be able to make informed choices.
Yet activities such as story telling, puppetry, music, art, games, theatre, sewing, craft, cooking woodwork, metal work, gardening and more can bring about a natural experience of mindfulness if the facilitator has enough experience of this state and can enter into it through practice or activity, knowing at the same time that we are not robots and don’t operate mechanically so it may not necessarily happen….
I feel very heartened that we have students about to graduate as teachers who have been able to tune into themselves and experience a degree of stillness and healing through puppetry. For I did not include puppetry simply as a technique for them to bring as teachers in their classrooms from next year, but more to experience a calm classroom for themselves! This seems particularly important in a university and ‘training’ settling, but more about a more holistic approach to higher education pedagogy another time!