‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’
In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.
One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.
The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.
An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’
So far we’ve looked at joyful mind and nurturing mind, which were two of the mindsets which the Zen master Dogen Zenji recommended for the monks in his monastery.The third one he called ‘magnanimous mind’. This is the mind which contains everything – all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, the various aspects of ourselves. In Buddhism it is sometimes called the ‘big sky mind’, which, like the vast sky, is always there, even when obscured by clouds at times. It encourages us to be present to the full range of experiences, instead of saying metaphorically ‘I don’t like rainclouds, I only like fluffy white clouds and warm (but not too hot!) sunshine.’
The magnanimous mind invites us to take a wider perspective rather than getting constantly bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life. Paying close attention to detail has its place, but we can find ourselves getting caught up in the proverbial storm in a teacup, where a more open perspective may have helped us to see the issue from multiple viewpoints, offering us a lot more information to work with. This can lead us to consider a range of options to respond to a situation, rather than jumping to conclusions too quickly.
Meditation encourages us to rest in both perspectives, sometimes simultaneously, other times separately. At times, we may pay close attention to some body sensations, or thought patterns, or the sounds around us. At other times, we may rest in a sense of open, spacious presence. In our daily life, we also tend to vacillate between the different states, and we may find ourselves out of balance at times. Perhaps we’re a bit too dreamy, and could benefit from becoming more grounded in the tasks which need to be completed. Other times we may be very conscientious with our obligations, but neglect the aspect of ourselves which might yearn for a sense of something greater than ourselves.
The joyful mind invites us to take notice of the aspects of our lives which are precious, and which can increase our sense of wellbeing and joy. The nurturing mind asks us to take good care of our environment, our self, and our relationship – those aspects of our lives which keep us grounded and feeling cared for. And the magnanimous mind helps us to also live with the sense of an expanded perspective, the deeper, more open part of our lives which are always present. Dogen recommended these three minds to his monks hundreds of years ago, but they can also support us in our modern life, as qualities to remember as we go about our day to day life.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Each week, choose one of the three minds, and aim to incorporate it into your daily life in a way which feels helpful for you. In the fourth week, use what you have learnt, and incorporate all three minds into your life.
‘Watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?’
Dogen Zenji, in his ‘Instructions to the Cook’
Last month we looked at joyful mind, the first of the ‘three minds’ which were recommended by the famous Zen master Dogen Zenji for the monks in his monastery. The second mind he called ‘nurturing mind’, or parental mind. I think of it as the mind of ‘taking good care’. Dogen was the leader of a community, and he wanted to encourage a culture where people took care of each other rather than expected to be taken care of. The monks in his monastery would have been very serious about their meditation practice – after all, to become a monk requires a significant amount of sacrifice. It’s easy then to be focused on ‘my meditation’, ‘my gains’ and ‘my progress’. Yet Zen has a strong focus on community – for everyone to take good care of each other and of the buildings, grounds and belongings. Dogen was asking the cook to watch over the rice not as a task to be completed so that dinner could be served, but with the ‘affection and kindness of nourishing children’. The same would have been true of the many other daily chores around the monastery – washing clothes, sweeping the hall, raking leaves, cleaning the toilets.
How would it feel to bring this nurturing mind into the everyday aspects of our lives? To bring affectionate attention to folding the laundry, paying a bill online, filling up the car with petrol? We can bring into our day either an underlying attitude of slight impatience, or else of kindly presence. This sounds simple, but in fact reveals a lot about our basic approach to life – whether we’re holding back a little, or are really prepared to commit ourselves to being fully present.
‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.’
This famous speech by Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is about mercy, but we could also apply it to nurturing mind. At its best, nurturing mind is quiet and gentle, nurturing the soil of our lives with little moments of affectionate presence. While it requires a certain amount of intentionality, it’s not about trying too hard (straining) to be nurturing. Next month we will look at what Dogen called the ‘magnanimous’ mind, which is like a container providing a context for joyful and nurturing minds.
Mindful practice idea:
Pick an everyday physical task such as tidying, cleaning and so on, and for a week, experiment doing this task with either slight impatience, or affectionate presence. Do you notice a difference, and how does it feel?
The famous thirteenth century Zen master Dogen Zenji, in his ‘Instructions to the cook’ (Tenzokyokun), wrote about three minds which the cook (and anyone else who is practising Zen) should maintain as they go about their daily tasks. These three minds are joyful mind, nurturing (or paternal) mind, and magnanimous mind. We will look at these over the coming months, starting with joyful mind today.
When Dogen spoke of the joyful mind, he did not mean it in the sense of pretending to be happy when we’re not, or pushing away negative thoughts and only letting positive ones in. In his monastery, daily work was considered just as much part of a Zen life as sitting and walking meditation. He instructed the cook that when he was cooking, the cooking itself was the practice – not getting the cooking over and done with so that everyone would be able to eat, but simply cooking for the sake of cooking. We can find joy in these tasks because they connect us to each moment as it is. There is no need to be focused on outcomes, to feel we’re rushing through mundane tasks so that we can, at some time in the indeterminate future, arrive at the more ‘important moments’ in our life. The cooking is the life, as is offering the food we’ve cooked to others, eating the meal, and cleaning up afterwards.
One of the easiest and most profound ways we can cultivate a joyful mind in everyday life is through pausing, taking a breath, and allowing ourselves to feel a gentle half smile in our body. This smile is almost imperceptible, it is more felt than seen, and we can imagine it in our face, or behind our eyes, in our shoulders or heart centre or the belly. There is a world of difference between going through the day with a slight frown or a gentle smile. The half-smile brings a sense of openness, connectedness, and softening into our lives – it can be wonderfully restful and grounding.
We can also pause to appreciate how precious it is to have a human life where we can practise meditation and other ways of nurturing wellbeing. Our human lives involve suffering, but we also have countless opportunities to cultivate qualities such as compassion, equanimity, and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, living in the ‘heavenly realm’ is not conducive to good practice, as we have no motivation to try and improve the lives of others if we’re too comfortable in our own! There is also an acknowledgment that being in the ‘hell realms’, going through periods of intense suffering, can limit our capacities to fully develop ourselves, at least for a period of time when we’re just scrambling to survive.
Most of the time, however, we’re hopefully living here on earth, between heaven and hell, and this brings with it many precious opportunities. It is easy to miss these in the hectic distractedness of daily life. Yet our so-called ‘ordinary’ daily life can actually be the most reliable and effective way to cultivate a joyful mind, if we keep bringing this simple intention into our days.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and either in meditation, or through journaling, drawing or some other creative expression, reflect on the qualities of your human life which are precious to you. Choose one of these, and notice how it manifests in your everyday life for the next three days.
There is no doubt that meditation is not always enjoyable. Sometimes it can be hard work, even confronting. The aim of meditation is not necessarily to feel relaxed at all times, yet our meditation practice can also become a bit too earnest, involving too much striving for some desired outcome. Different times in our lives may call for varying emphasis in meditation. We don’t want to discover one way of meditating and then stick to that for the rest of our lives. It can be interesting to look at our personality and tendencies, and to consider how these might impact on our meditation.
If we have a personality which likes to take it easy and prefers the path of least resistance, then perhaps during meditation we can balance this out by being more willing to stay with difficult feeling states. On the other hand, if we tend to drive ourselves quite hard most of the time, then meditation could be an opportunity to practise being more gentle, less compelled.
Even on days when we feel quite stressed, we can make a conscious effort to enjoy one aspect of our meditation. This can also be true for any other time when we take the opportunity to pause for a few moments. For example, our mind might be quite busy with anxious thoughts, but the feeling of the breath in the belly might be pleasant. There may be a bird which sings from time to time. Our face might be at rest, or the ground may feel solid underneath our body. We might be aware that the sun is shining outside, or there could be the yearned-for patter of rain.
There are many opportunities for resting in a small area of enjoyment, even when our life is far from easy. Most of our moments, if we become more attuned to them, are like a painting with many different colours and shapes. There may be a dark corner, but also shimmering light, and a section in the left which is intriguing but doesn’t quite make sense. We’re complex beings, and we can live more embodied lives when we embrace the full range of our experiences.
This includes enjoyment – enjoyment of the simple fact that we are alive and breathing and able to perceive the world through our senses. That is by no means the whole of meditation, but sometimes, perhaps, it is enough.
Sit for ten minutes, and allow your mind to rest on enjoyable experiences – something very simple, such as the softness of clothing against the skin, or a sound which is nice to listen to. Notice how it feels to turn the mind towards enjoyment.
‘While mindfulness, a once obscure term, has quickly become a coin of the realm, I prefer to call it affectionate attention. Whatever its name, this quality of attention is profoundly liberating. ‘ John Prendergast
In the last few years, the word mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to know what it means anymore. It has come to describe almost anything which involves pausing for a moment, sometimes for no more than a minute. There seems to be a heartfelt longing for more mindfulness in the lives of many people, and there are many different pathways to cultivating a greater sense of being mindful. So rather than trying to find one ‘correct’ definition of mindfulness, it could be more useful to ask ourselves what mindfulness actually means for us – for each of us as unique individuals. Why did we become interested in mindfulness in the first place, and why are we intrigued enough to stay engaged with the idea?
For me, one of the aspects of mindfulness which I appreciate most is having a greater sense of connectedness to my life – feeling more present within my life, rather than rushing through it on automatic pilot ticking off a never-ending list of ‘things to do’ as I go. There’s also a greater sense of friendliness, appreciation, and engaging with challenges rather than avoiding or inflating them, and these are all welcome benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. So mindfulness for me could mean ‘being present rather than absent from my life’. Music, gardening, walking in nature – these all help to cultivate this sense of presence as well.
When I teach mindfulness, it’s not uncommon for participants to share that they somehow feel guilty for not being ‘mindful’ enough, for not making the time to meditate regularly, for finding themselves caught up in unhelpful patterns. Rather than trying to attain some idealised state of mindfulness it might be more useful to ask ourselves – where does my yearning for more mindfulness come from? What does mindfulness mean to me? What practices are helpful for me, and what seems to easily lead me into a sense of mindlessness? Sometimes there are powerful reasons why we may struggle with mindfulness. We may have experienced traumatic events, including being bullied, spending time in hospital as a child, or having a parent who was moody and unpredictable. Or our current life may be so demanding there seems no room left for us to pause and reflect.
It is our inner motivation, our inner call, which can best guide us on our mindfulness journey. What is this inner yearning about? And if we didn’t call it mindfulness, what other word or phrase might best describe it for us?
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten minutes or longer to explore the place of mindfulness in your life. You could start a sentence, ‘for me, mindfulness means…’ and go from there, either through journaling, meditation, or some other form of creative expression. What did you discover? Which words stood out for you?