Weekly ChallengeIs it just me?

There is a main road fairly near my house which I generally only notice when there’s a westerly wind. Today, its silence is audible. Since lockdown took hold, I’m feeling a great stillness; a stillness that is perhaps always there but goes unnoticed most of the time; like the space between the cars, between sounds, between my thoughts, between doing this or that;  the stillness that I have glimpsed during meditation, the rooted-to-the-ground kind of stillness, the sky-above-the-clouds kind of stillness. I’m noticing this stillness pervading my body. My body is beginning to feel more relaxed, like it has dropped its defenses, unfurled, opened up, let go, and naturalized somehow. I’m feeling my breath has dropped down deeper into my body. Before I encountered Mindfulness and Compassion practices my relationship with my body was a bit dysfunctional, but I didn’t know that. I would not have believed you if you had told me that my body had anything to do with meditation, or that I held emotion in my body, that my body is where I feel my emotions.

As a child I enjoyed my amazing energetic body – running, climbing, dancing, cartwheeling… my body would freely express the joy of the moment… but something insidious slipped in unbeknown to me; free running turned into school races, competition, winners and losers, I needed to be faster, jump higher, be the best! And to do that, my body had to be thin! Supple! Fantastic! My body became a bit of a battleground as I moved through my teenage years, joy subsumed by taught striving, equating my body now with achievement, success, being a perfect model human rather than an expression of embodied joy and vibrancy. Joy was gone, judgement and self-loathing seeped in to take its place. And what I didn’t notice was that I had lost touch with my feelings, physical and emotional.

Mindfulness and Compassion practices, and especially the body scan helped me to feel again, in both senses. I had not realized there was quite so much I had not known about myself – my conditioning, my self-belief. Continued practice has been vital for me, but I’ve come to realise there’s no quick fix; progression isn’t the answer but persistance and depth is; the unravelling may never end. Mindfulness helps me to be ok with that too. The free daily sitting practice has been a great support for me when I can make it– to be guided by the experienced Mindfulness Association tutors has refreshed my practice. There might be some perceived ‘progression’ through Mindfulness Level 1, Level 2 etc., right up to the MSc in Mindfulness Studies, but for me, I’m happy to just keep coming back to the basic practices over and over with an attitude of ‘beginner’s mind’ – and each time there is a new offering, a tiny beautiful precious gem of insight.

So here and now today in our sixth week of lockdown the world feels different to me. The feeling of deep peacefulness that I appear to have picked up on, is almost indescribable, spacious, resonant of Buddhist teachings on non-doing, non-action, not-doing. I’m not sure I’d be feeling this if I didn’t have a daily Mindfulness meditation practice. Is it just me or can you feel it too?

Over coffee I’m saying this to my partner expecting a roll of the eyes. Actually, he says, he has read a report: seismologists at the British Geological Survey have indeed reported a drop in the ‘anthropogenic din’, the ‘cultural noise’: as lockdown took hold, they recorded a notable drop in the high frequency waves of vibrational energy that human activity sends through the surface of the Earth; the article says ‘there’s a kind of hush all over the world as the reduction in human activity stops the world buzzing so much’[1]. I sit in my contemplative stillness with my coffee, which is also now apparently vibrating less. It strikes me that this lockdown is rich pickings for all kinds of anthropological studies. Has the whole world actually dropped into a state of meditation? People, like thoughts, are calmed and stilled and although still there, are no longer left free to roam (wreaking all kinds of havok!). Peace and spaciousness, less pollution, less doing and more being is ‘the new normal’.

As it happens, yesterday I volunteered to help a fellow student with her MSc Year 2 Professional Enquiry mini study on guided Mindfulness in Nature. It required that I spend half an hour in nature with no instruction, followed by a 20 minute guided meditation in nature (via zoom), which I could do from home, in my garden.

It was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore the impact mindfulness guidance has on my experience of nature around my home compared to my own self-guided mindful walking. I observed in myself a resistance to the format; the anticipated ‘intrusion’ (in my mind) of technology disturbing the imagined ‘meditative ambience’; however as soon as the guidance started, the resistance to the online format fell away and I became fully engaged with the practice. I found there to be a definite difference in quality, and a freshness in ‘not-knowing’ what was going to happen next, which contrasted to an underlying sense of ‘boredom’ (a form of dukkha/unsatisfactoriness?) with my own unguided walking meditation.

On my initial unguided resting in nature meditation, I was very much focused on what I could see, drawn to shapes and textures light and dark, as it my habit; and not so much to feelings in my body, or particularly to emotions; I noticed I used the visual as support as we might use sound or breath. The guided meditation cultivated a broader awareness beginning with breath and the space around me. Our guide asked us to remove our socks and shoes if we felt comfortable with that, and to experience mindful walking in bare feet; this really grounded my body and mind and I felt alive in my body and very much connected to the earth – like I was walking in a different world, alive to my senses. During this barefoot session, I experienced a sudden and emotional feeling of gratitude which I felt in my body it filled me up and welled up from my feet on the ground then abdomen to my eyes and it came with a sense of joy, gratitude for my life and everything around me, it made me feel very connected to the earth and all its doings. I was surprised and elated. I noticed the sensations of the wind on my face, cool now, warm, now, how the left felt different to the right how I was part of all the air and how all the trees were breathing out and in like me. I felt very calm and connected, supported with the soothing voice of the guide. I was aware as I bathed in all the garden sounds, the birds, the trees and grass, even the noise of my neighbours banging in the garden, perceiving them as just the sounds of life unfolding, and this latter noise might have been something that could have irritated me on another occasion, when not being guided through meditation practice.

We were asked to focus on a nearby plant or tree looking at it as if for the first time. I chose a little 3ft sapling Rowan that I had grown from a little white berry. I noticed its strong little trunk and baby branches holding impossibly beautiful symmetry of leaves which were so delicate and the wonder of that all coming from a berry. I stuck my face into its branches as instructed (!) and was suddenly aware more of the thought of hoping no-one was watching me.. I looked completely crazy. Humour arising… I noticed my self-conscious thinking, furtive checking, and came back to appreciate the qualities of the tree, laughing at myself, and touching a sense of joy again as our guide asked us to move our focus out now to the tree in its surroundings, to the broader space around the tree and garden… the sky, and I was back reconnected with that rooted-to-the-ground, sky-above-the-clouds kind of stillness; resting in the midst of it all.

• • •

Once I got a case of innapropriate giggles at Samye Ling on my first Mindfulness Course during a walking meditation practice. It was a mixture of self-consciousness but also super-consciousness of us all walking together  – we all went really slowly to the beach and all really slowly turned to face the sun in slow silence. It still makes me giggle now. I felt a bit naughty but I had to accept that that is what arose for me at that time. I watched myself trying to stop giggling and that made it even worse. I was so physically and mentally uncomfortable with silence. Now I’m breathing it in and (barefoot) mindful walking is one of my favourite meditations. You’ve got to love a good giggle sometimes though.

Weekly challenge: take some time this week in your daily life to notice when something catches your eye for any reason. Notice your thoughts, judgements and assumptions around the object, then, allowing those thoughts and feelings to be as they are, disengage from thinking and notice any bodily sensations. From that place then broaden your awareness to bring in some space around the situation. How does that feel?




[1] The Guardian