The secret’s out. Most of us know something about mindfulness. ‘Being in the present moment.’ ‘Non-judging awareness’. ‘Understanding our patterns of reaction’. Etc.
There are really good books out there, and plenty of 8 week courses available.
Yet it’s a sad fact that most people who start an 8 week course, don’t keep on with the practice. It stays theoretical. It fades, and we’re back with the same old worries and stresses, and making the same mistakes, again and again.
I’m going to I look at why this happens, and what you might want to do about, it if you have a sense that there’s more to gained.
I want to make the case for plugging away at the practice, perhaps for years. I’m going to get personal and tell my own story, in the hope that some of my passion rubs off. I hope I can do this without it looking like I’m telling you how clever I am; I’m not particularly gifted at this, but I have dug deeply, and found treasure. You can too. I’m going to try to draw out what works best.
So I’ve been casting my mind back 20 years, to remember why I got started in the first place. Many people come to mindfulness because they have anxiety or depression. But my starting point was simply feeling that there must be more to life. I was very lucky in having loving parents and doing ok in education, and establishing a successful career. I have a lovely wife and a nice house. But it was not enough. There was a lack of meaning.
My first couple of years were with a mindful movement teacher – a kind of free range Tai Chi. Without knowing it this was a great place to start. Body awareness is the most effective way to connect with raw experience; by-passing the thinking mind. So there’s the first lesson – mindfulness is predominantly an experiential practice, and not one that needs too much thinking. There may be too much emphasis on why and how this works in most courses, and too much sitting still.
I soon moved on to working with other teachers, in an eclectic and perhaps eccentric Buddhust lineage led by a Canadian ex Christian minister who swapped his dog collar for monk’s robes. He flourished and was recognised by the highest authorities as being fully enlightened. To sit in front of him was to sit in the room with a mountain. Some of his students are now amazing teachers in their own right. And therein lies lesson no.2 – find a teacher with many years and a real depth of experience. I’ve come across care workers, therapists and others who do a couple of weeks mindfulness training and then feel empowered to teach. They are not. There is an energetic and mind-to-mind connection with a teacher who has deep realisation of the nature of mind – settle for nothing less. And by the way, you may get inspired by books, but you need a teacher, for just that reason; you can’t do this by yourself.
Although my practice had its quiet periods, and some downright unpleasant experiences, I kept going with it. Every year I have attended retreats of 10 days of more, and latterly private retreats too. It’s only by patiently plodding through the challenging times, and developing enough tranquillity and equanimity to allow yourself to go deeper, that the nature of mind begins to reveal itself. Meditation is a highly skilled business – we’re getting right under the normal pattern of thinking and it needs to be done in a methodical way.
So lesson no. 3 is a simple one; don’t give up, and do whatever helps most to keep your energy and interest high.
It’s helpful too when life gets difficult! Without saying just why, my cosy life has had some real challenges. It’s by road-testing the practice when it matters most, that the biggest learning comes about. So I’m not recommending that you go and look for trouble, but I am saying that when there are difficulties in your life, that’s actually the best time for practice. Start where you are, as Pema Chodron suggests.
Finally there’s the need for good motivation. It’s really important to be clear why you’re doing this and what your intention is. Whist you may start with wanting to do something about your own happiness, and that’s important, the practice will only develop if your aspiration becomes selfless. When you really want to help others and contribute to a better world, it actually opens up channels of insight. And you may also have read that the happiest mind-state is compassion, so that’s a win-win scenario.
With all the suffering in the world, there’s plenty of opportunity to practice! We can’t change what happening in Aleppo right now, but if we can take a more compassionate view to what’s around us, and enough of us do that, the world will change. If you need a big idea to work with, how about healing the world, starting here?
So what’s it done for me? I’m happier, I feel connected with something bigger than me, I’m more tolerant, my work is better, and most of all, I know that the deepest happiness comes not from material possessions or passing highs, but from touching the transcendental. And that’s always there, for all of us, with all its pristine, positive, endless possibilities. In fact it’s right in front of your nose.