“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”
― Shunryu Suzuki
My mind is full, and not always mindful. And I’ve been doing this a while. It’s not getting easier, but it is geting deeper, messier. What a joy!
The deep path of mindfulness training as opposed to the wide path (described by Goleman and Davidson in their book Altered Traits) is what I have undertaken with the Mindfulness Association. It is a path which offers guidance and teachings that have taken me beyond simply noticing what’s happening while its happening in the mind, it has taken me deeper to notice the preferences I have underlying the thoughts, which takes me down into a whole world of myself that I never knew was there. And it does not go in a straight line – this deep path, it dives into a place which denies any kind of measurement or grades of success. Hard to describe, the journey is profound, but I had to put in the effort to sit. It is funny and paradoxical to think that I have had to train myself to do nothing, and that this might be seen as ‘deep’ but we don’t gain any benefits unless we sit, on that cushion, and literally do nothing. Which is, though paradoxical and nonsensical to the thinking mind – the only way to go. By going nowhere, the world has opened up to me offering me peace, space, glimpses of joy. But it requires practice and effort. The effort part is the hardest. Its not effort as in weightlifting, just effort to change old habits, shift to a new one, effort to sit on a cushion just sounds a bit bonkers but, just try it.
A formal daily mindfulness practice subtly pervades my lived experience with a dawning clarity about how I interact in my day- and what I have noticed is that my being appears to be operated by different versions of myself at any one point in time. – I’ve met them on my cushion… There’s the operational me that gets my s#!t together and drives me to not fall apart, the reluctant cleaner, that sorts the neverending laundry pile and house tidying (now all the kids have left home there’s no one else to blame!), there’s the me that feels vulnerable, can be defensive and has a tendency to be reactive (Mindfulness really helps with this one but it needs the compassion to compound and neutralise it), there’s the me that directs my body to sit on the cushion so I can stop and listen to its wisdom, and then there’s the coper, the one that grits teeth and gets through anything.. there’s the lazy one, th eprocrastinator, that over eats and likes wine and can’t get me out the door sometimes. There’s a few.
Usually the anxious me keeps me away from the cushion, this is why I need to practice all the time, not just when I think I need it – if I practice when things are calm, it will prepare me for the stormy times ahead…There’s a new me that teaches mindfulness! A new slowly-emerging version, with still-damp wings. A new ‘OK with being vulnerable’ me that came alongside that new one.
Each time on the cushion, I don’t know which one will be there to greet me. No wonder it takes a while to sort out the ‘mess’ inside me – to dig down, to get to the core of ‘me’ underneath all these coping beings.
I have found many different teachings that appeal to me at different times, and I read that in Buddhism there are many approaches many teachings appealing in different ways- perhaps this is why I can listen to the same teaching and hear a different thing that resonates at that moment…., or a painting or a song suddenly .. means something, when it went on by me the day before.
Many types of meditation, many approaches, much repetition, circling round. This is the deep path. Each day I am a different version of myself, with subtle moods and attitudes affecting my choices and behaviour that day.. and so I may deal with a particular practice with resistance one day, when another day – boom! I suddenly break through and see something I didn’t even know was lurking there. This is revisiting the same basic practices. I began in 2014 and still consider myself at the beginning.
We are encouraged to practice with beginner’s mind because each time we go in, we go down, we meet a new layer of ‘me’ fresh and new, and we have to begin again, here, and now, with this. I will continue to go back to the basic mindfulness and compassion practices. Mindfulness is for life, for me and I’ve realised there’s no hurry to ‘get anywhere’.
Our culture demands progress, achievements and is goal driven and so our brains are conditioned this way, not our fault – we expect to progress in a linear fashion, 1,2,3 done! But Mindfulness doesn’t work that way. We need to keep coming back to meet ourselves where we are today, here, and now, with this breath.
There’s a great cartoon about this that made me laugh. I couldn’t find it so I redrew the essence of it – in the main image… I wonder of you recognize the trajectory?!
The ego can make me want to progress and jump ahead. Mind wandering down that negative track again? Start again. Still being reactive to colleagues, friends and family? Don’t beat myself up just start again. Still judgemental? Start again. Back on the cushion and revisit compassion practices. Feel like a doormat? Self compassion. I found that to my surprise compassion wasn’t what I thought it was. And self-compassion wasn’t wishy washy sentimentality either. I used to think that to put yourself first was so selfish! But the cultivation to and connection with this deep compassion takes time, gentleness, a tender approaching, not to be rushed, it might take time to uproot that particular blocking self-denigrating belief. I found compassion to be so strong, fearsome even, (remember that tough but strong, slightly scary but kind teacher at school that everyone loved?)– I found that compassion has teeth, it makes me strong, gives me permission for some self respect.
Self compassion appeared in my dream as a mother leopard
who used her teeth not to kill me but to literally pick me up (which hurt)
and move me out of harm’s way.
That was very powerful. She was the embodiment of compassion.
The Mindfulness Association training pathway combines a mixture of teachings form Mahayana Buddhism, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, as well as embodied meditation practice, and so learning in this way with intellect and body combined brings mind, body and spirit back into harmony – we don’t want a battle, we need to bring our egoic thinking mind with us as an ally, not an adverary.
Knowing the evolution of the brain and body is helping me to face what a part of me calls ‘stress’ by helping me to see it as an innate physiological necessity attached to a mental patterning, with evolutionary causes, that were essential for survival in my stone age ancestors but which are being triggered inappropriately in 2022 in my safe house and here at my desk. This was for me a starting point to understand this; however with my mindfulness practice, (which is called practice for a reason!) my brain needs this continued and persistent cultivation of a new habit of mindfulness practice which doesn’t stop or block the stress, but gives me a new and better way to tackle it. And understand that that instinctual part of me is not going to go away ever, but at least I can learn how to soothe it, and feel better.
Mindfulness practice (in even small but often amounts) basically hacks the overreactive sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight reaction) by consciously awakening the latent soothing parasympathetic system – controlled breathing, deep breathing, soothing hand, soothing voice tone to self. So the more we practice the more we are able to self-soothe, the more we can connect with an inner peace and spacious feeling.
I has taken several attempts and many months to learn how to tackle my own mental blockages about myself, and some are less accessible than others. I’ve noticed how I tell myself stories, justifying my sometimes unskillful (i.e. bad!) behaviour even to myself – even last night I was denying I had an attitude about something, actually I was, up to a point sure it was him that had the attitude! but the tiny voice in me said mh-hmm? And the ego in me just couldn’t, wouldn’t admit out loud. But I saw it. Oof.
When we revisit the practices, we edge closer each time to facing the truth of it.
When a story is seen and faced with the courage of compassion, and all I mean here is that we have courage to simply be with whatever is arising no matter what it is and notice the urge to run/hide/implode, we can go through it, and when we emerge out the other side, something has been left behind, like an old skin, and we have tapped into some innate tank of energy – for me it feels like compassionate energy that fills the space with joy. It usually comes out after a wrestle with aversion, stopping myself running away; it requires a tenacity, a grappling with, and cutting my way through sleepiness, calls to action (urgent work) the mind throws a whole array of distractions in the way, like one of those spikey things the police throw across the road to stop cars, the ego has all kinds of devices to prevent us from going deeper and revealing our vulnerabilities!
Despite years of practice, a strong intention to practice for the benefit of myself and others I still need to do the basics over and over where coming back to breath is like coming home.
I have had to come to terms with the fact that I have a conditioned striving mind that wants to ‘progress’ and the inevitable feeling of failure that comes alongside it; one step forward two steps back. It’s not true, that thought; that I am moving one step forward and two steps back, is it? As I gain mindfulness, it just appears more messy – because finally, at last, I am really noticing what is happening while it is happening in my mind.
When I discovered the Mindfulness Association supported pathway in 2013 I felt it had the ingredients I needed with authentic motivated teachers that I trusted to guide me through and with a network of fellow practitioners I could talk to … and here I am now still here, still practising and going deeper every time into these basic and fundamental practices that each time bring me closer to being OK with being me, whatever is happening to me – I am OK. You are OK. We are all fundamentally OK, no matter how messy we feel inside.
I’m so looking forward to the reunion weekend at Samye Ling, I hope you can make it and maybe we can have a cup of skychai and a wee chat in the Tibetan Tea Rooms. And maybe we can sit in the shrine room and just start again.
I’d better pack a big enough bag for all the versions of myself!
The challenge this week is just to be OK with starting again, every breath, every moment, every day. It’s the only place we have to start, is right here, right now.
The past is gone, no need to relive it; the future is only another moment of now that hasn’t happened yet. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities…
- To help support your practice on this life journey we have a daily guided meditation practice Monday to Friday 10.30am and 7pm
- The Mindfulness Asscoiation has in place a widening access policy so we can help you attend courses if you are struggling financially, we don’t want this to prevent you from your practice. We are currently creating a free 4-week online course so keep a look-out for that, and we also have a range of starter courses online for you to dip your toe in to see if our way of delivering mindfulness suits your needs.
- Mindfulness Association Membership is also a great way to support your practice on this journey. For only £10 for a 6 month trial you can have access to fortnightly teachings, access to free recorded practices and a free members weekend packed full of teachings and opportunity to network with other mindfulness practitioners.
- Post Graduate Studies. 2 Msc. courses. I am currently studying in the MSc Studies in Mindfulness is an experiential course run by the University of Aberdeen with the Mindfulness Association online and in person – is a part time course which combines Mindfulness with your professional context and delivers part one of the MBLC (Mindfulness Based Living Course) teacher training embedded in the course. I thoroughly recommend it! And I am an artist so if I can do it so can you!
- Our next in-depth Mindfulness Level one weekend starts on the 7th May with Tina and Adam.