I’ve been absent from my blog since New Year because I’ve had a combination of health issues that have stopped me from doing much except resting and trying to achieve one thing each day – and sometimes that’s just been managing to stay awake!
I’ve been involved in starting a Mindfulness Group at a local centre that provides support to folk with disabilities drawing the local community into its activities. The idea behind this group has been to sit together and offer support to one another in our practice. Some of us have previous experience with Mindfulness Practice and some are new to the whole idea. I’ve been giving a lot of time to thinking about how to explain Mindfulness Practice to folk who have no idea what it is about, so here’s my attempt.
Mindfulness Practice is the central practice in Buddhism*; at its simplest it is a practice of being present to ourselves in every moment, and to attain this we use our breath. The great thing about the breath is that it is always with us. There’s no need for special robes, churches or temples; no need for special books; no need for special days**. In every moment we can practice just by tuning into our breath and bringing our awareness to sitting here, in this body, on this chair, in this present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, tells us that everything we need is here in this present moment. No need to live in the past, or try to live in the future, all we need is here, now.
I used to think there was something esoteric and mystical about this when I first began to practice because the idea that I could give all my attention to only this moment seemed impossible – in many ways it is, and that is why we take our seat and give our attention only to our breath in this body, on this cushion in this present moment.
I began practicing in Spring 1999 with people brought together by our friend, Cathy Bache, who had been exploring mindfulness through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It was a pivotal time in all of our lives. Each of us were experiencing some difficulties and were determined to break out of the patterns that kept us going round in circles. I needed a rest, and for two hours every Thursday that rest came in the shape of twenty minutes of guided meditation, ten minutes of walking meditation, twenty minutes of silent meditation followed by sharing (if we wanted to) and sharing the merit of our practice with others not present with us, then tea and conversation.
Thich Nhat Hahn talks about how refreshing the practice is; I couldn’t describe it as refreshing at first, it was the rest that was most noticeable to me. Rest from all the demands in my life as a working single mother; rest from the demands of my responsibilities as a teacher; rest from extremely painful divorce I was at the beginning of.
Mindfulness Practice is simple (but not easy): we pay attention to our in breath and follow it, and pay attention to our out breath and follow it, and when the inevitable intrusion of thinking comes in, we notice it and smile to it, and let it go. No harsh judgements; the invitation is to befriend what comes.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term ‘suchness’ which basically means ‘it is what it is’. We can’t change, for instance, fear in ourselves unless we accept that fear is there; we need to give time to looking into this fear with compassion, understanding its roots, and what it needs to be transformed. We do this by befriending ourselves, and giving time to ourselves to observe ourselves with compassion.
For me, Mindfulness Practice meant air got into my hot little life and everything became less constricted; in my body; in my mind, and in my heart. In practicing with my friends, my sangha, it became easier to stay with the breath; sharing our difficulties with the practice helped me understand I wasn’t getting it wrong; we were all observing our own minds in action and understanding, for the first time, that we don’t actually need to pay attention to our thoughts; they don’t exist outside of our minds; they don’t become concrete until we make them solid by acting on them. Some thoughts are pleasant – day dreams for example; some thoughts are frightening – fear of meeting new people; some thoughts are neutral – remembering to buy pasta on the way home. This mixture of thinking with all the positive, negative and neutral charges they bring, swirl around in our minds and they all call for our attention, (a bit like a classroom with thirty-three ten-year olds!).
Sitting in mindfulness practice helped to learn how to not pay attention to my thinking****; to notice the thought, label it, and let it go. The more I did this, the more it became habit and the easier it became to give my time to the thoughts that needed my attention, when I needed to make a decision and put that decision into action; in turn I was able to focus on my breath to ease anxiety, anger, and overwhelm. Thich Nhat Hanh says all we need is three mindful breaths to bring us back to the present moment – back to ourselves.
The sense of refreshment did come. Present moment, wonderful moment is every moment because in every moment we can choose to tune in to our breath and regardless of how bad or good the last moment was, in this moment we can choose to begin anew, one in breath, and one out breath at a time.
Peace and smiles
* Mindfulness Practice is central to Buddhism across the world, but has also been utilised in the West in medicine as a way to deal with physical and mental health issues; in the business world to help workers focus better, and in education to help children in school to focus on their learning. Some people are against removing mindfulness practice from its ethical roots, while others think the benefits of the practice are felt regardless of the context in which it is practiced.
** Which is not to say that sacred texts, sacred spaces and ritual have no importance; the point is that we can practice anywhere.
*** I should point out that I am a very cerebral person; as a child I was always asking why, and that continued into adulthood – twenty years of practice later and I can now let some why questions go by!