This last weekend I was teaching weekend one of the Level 1: Being present course at Samye Ling with Graeme Armstrong and Anna Kane – a fabulous team. There were a lot of people on the course who were pretty much new to mindfulness. Many had the motivation to find a calmer state of mind as modern life had led them to have a very busy mind within which little peace could be found.
The first stage of our mindfulness training, developed by Rob Nairn, is a first act of self-compassion. We sit and recognise the unsettled mind. We recognise that we have a butterfly mind, always flitting from one thinking activity to another, and sometimes a crazy monkey mind swinging raucously from one thinking activity to another. It wouldn’t be such a problem, except that our default thinking activities tend to be negative and so often induce anxiety, sadness and fear. We buy into the messages and emotions that our thinking activity generates and so we suffer. This thinking activity goes round and round and round in a seeming never ending loop!
When we do the recognising the unsettled mind practice, which is available on our Mindfulness Based Living app, we gain a sense that we all have busy and often negative minds and so we are not on our own in this. Also, we gain a sense that we didn’t choose for the mind to be this way. We don’t sit and say to ourselves ‘Just now I am going to think about that really awkward situation yesterday, I am going to think about it over and over again, tell myself repeatedly I’m an idiot and make myself thoroughly miserable’. Instead a thought arises, by itself, about the awkward situation and we have a compulsion to engage the thought and think it, because of our past habit of engaging such thoughts. Our mind has been conditioned to throw up and then engage such thoughts by how we have used our minds in our previous life experience. Therefore, we can let ourselves off the hook, not blame ourselves for our crazy monkey minds and understand that recognising the unsettled mind and not blaming ourselves for it is a strong act of self-compassion.
However, through training our minds we can take responsibility going forwards using the principle of energy follows focus. In our mindfulness practice, when we notice we are thinking we let this be and bring our mind back to rest in the present moment. In this way we take our focus and energy out of thinking and place our focus and energy into the present moment. As we do this hundreds and thousands of times in our mindfulness practice we gradually reduce the habit of thinking every thought that the mind throws up and increase the habit of being present with the coming and going of thoughts, without having to compulsively engage them.
This gives us a choice, when a negative thought is thrown up, not to engage and not to make ourselves so miserable. However, we do have to train to allow and unconditionally accept the thought, which is easier said than done. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. However, the less we engage negative thoughts, such as angry or anxious thoughts, then over time, the less the mind will throw them up. Energy follows focus!
The other side of the training is placing our focus and energy into more skilful thoughts, such as thoughts of joy, gratitude, appreciation, allowing, friendliness and compassion. We practice orienting our mind towards this kind of thinking and it grows. Energy follows focus!
Then the first thought in the morning might be about how beautiful the winter sun is slanting thorough the window and how grateful we are for it, rather than complaining to ourselves that we will have to leave the house five minutes earlier to go into the cold and scrape ice off the car windows. With our mindfulness practice, we can make our experience of the cold and of scraping the ice a daily life mindfulness activity and enjoy the briskness and then the warmth of being in the car with the heater on!
The mind is a habitual thing. How we use it now will determine what it throws up tomorrow. So how will you use your mind today?
Skilfully, I hope!