Balance

orchid

One of my favourite books in my early 20s was called ‘The Sacred Tree’, and it described the American Indian philosophy of finding balance in our lives. The book was written as part of a collaborative project involving representatives of forty American Indian tribes. A part of their world view which really spoke to me was the concept of the four directions – East, South, West, North – which represented different aspects of our lives. The key to a happy and harmonious life was to find a balance between all four directions, rather than favouring one over the others. For example, the fiery passion of the South can be balanced by the intellectual strength of the North. Likewise, intellectualism on its own can become cold and uncaring, drawing up pedantic rules for others to follow rather than looking at what is actually happening on the ground, and this cold intellectualism in turn can benefit from the warmth and passion of the more emotional South.

Many people who learn and practise mindfulness report it helps them find greater balance in their lives. It’s easy to read books on how to improve your life, and many of these have good ideas and strategies. However, we are still 7 billion individual human beings, with very different lives, and what might be good advice for one person might be inappropriate or even harmful for someone else. Continue reading “Balance” »

Mindfulness moments

Koala 1

It’s the 31st December 1900, and the English writer Thomas Hardy is not looking forward to the new century. In his poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he describes the wintery landscape as the ‘Century’s corpse outleant’, the wind is the ‘death lament’, and every spirit on earth seemed ‘fervourless’ as himself. Suddenly he is jolted out of his gloomy reverie by the bright and ‘full-hearted’ song of a frail and gaunt thrush. It comes so out of the blue, seems so unconnected with what he’s been experiencing, that Thomas Hardy sees the ‘happy good-night air’ of the bird as a sign of ‘blessed Hope’.

The time is 5.30 pm, and I’m sitting in heavy traffic at a red light. It hasn’t been a great day at work, and when I get home, I’ll have to spend a few more hours at the computer catching up on admin. I’m in no mood for the cars pressing in around me, the smog, the thumping stereo of the ute behind. And then I look up and see a group of black cockatoos, flying with their slow, distinctive majestic wing beats towards the nearby bushlands. It is a moment of magic, of delight, of feeling connected to nature in the midst of peak hour traffic.

It’s the day after 9/11, and everyone is walking around looking stunned. Continue reading “Mindfulness moments” »

Equanimity

Flower arrangement

As a solid mass of rock

Is not stirred by the wind,

So a sage is not moved

By praise and blame.

Dhammapada 81-83

 

When we hear the word equanimity, it can imply detachment, cold-heartedness, a lack of emotions. On the other hand, when I find myself day after day ‘sweating the small stuff’, getting emotional about every little up and down, tossing and turning half the night because of some stress, greater equanimity seems like a wonderful idea! Daniel Siegel has a nice way of putting it when he talks about having enough limbic firing (activation of the mammalian part of our brain) for vitality but not chaos. Sometimes people come to meditation as a way of trying to escape their feelings, of becoming detached from the vicissitudes of life, of floating, as it were, above the ‘cesspool’ of human existence. However, most forms of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, are not about being detached, but becoming more connected to life. Yet this connection comes with greater equanimity – towards one’s own emotional states, mistakes and vulnerabilities, and also that of others.

It’s easy to fake equanimity – pretending we don’t care when we’ve been snubbed, or received an award, or didn’t get credit for an idea at work. Continue reading “Equanimity” »

Cultivating mindfulness

Lavender

In a 2012 survey of British young people (16-23 y.o.) about the origins of the food they eat, 40% were unable to link an image of a dairy cow with milk. 7% instead thought milk comes from wheat.  A survey this year also found that 30% of UK primary students thought cheese was made from plants, and a quarter believed fish fingers came from chicken or pigs. Nearly one in three British adults had no idea how potatoes were grown, and one in five thought that parsnips thrived on trees. Hopefully Australians are a little more knowledgeable about growing food, but the link between cultivating food, and grabbing it off a supermarket shelf, is certainly more tenuous than for past generations. A counter movement has been the increasing popularity of home vegie gardens, farmers markets, and taking food miles into account when shopping.

The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’, which means ‘to cultivate.’ To cultivate something implies ongoing effort and attention. It’s easy to stick a seed into the ground, and at the time of planting, you feel pretty good. This is like going to a workshop on mindfulness, or reading an inspirational book – you might feel you’ve done something important that you will benefit from. Yet most of the time, simply planting a seed isn’t enough. We also need to nurture it – by watering it, providing compost and other nutrients, and keeping the area free of weeds. Young plants also need to be protected against pest and diseases. All this has to be done on an ongoing basis, whether you feel like it or not. You might be in a rush to get to work but have to water the garden in the morning before a hot day. You might yearn for a lazy Saturday afternoon, but instead find yourself out in the drizzling rain weeding the vegie patch. This is like having a regular meditation practice – you just do the meditation, regardless of whether you are in the mood for it or not, whether you’d really prefer to be doing something else with your time. Continue reading “Cultivating mindfulness” »

Thoughts are not the enemy

Gum leaves

 ‘Thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.’

Segal, Williams and Teasdale

 

 

A young woman dressed in a white outfit sits cross-legged, on grass or near water, a calm expression on her face. We imagine she has cleared her mind of thoughts, and is resting somewhere between bliss and enlightenment. If you google ‘meditation’ on google images, this is the photo which will come up for most of the first page. It is one of the most enduring images of meditation in our culture, and it is misleading. First of all, she is not sitting in a good meditation posture. Her legs are crossed, but her knees are up in the air, and anyone who has tried to sit in this position for more than two minutes quickly finds it is very uncomfortable on the back. That’s why experienced meditators usually sit on a firm meditation cushion, or use a chair or meditation bench.

The other misconception is that meditation is about clearing your mind of thoughts. Over many years of running mindfulness workshops, I have heard this again and again,

‘I tried meditation ten years ago. I sat down on the bed and tried to clear my thoughts but couldn’t do it. Obviously meditation is not for me.’

Even in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, where we emphasis from the first night that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts, participants often come back week after week, frustrated they still have thoughts going through their mind. Continue reading “Thoughts are not the enemy” »