Apr 2016

My Journey into Mindfulness Practice

I learnt the value of mindfulness the hard way. 

At the age of 40, after five years of dealing with problems that most would find devastating, I realised I needed to stop running and start dealing with things in a different way. Having worked hard and achieved well in my career, I had applied the same driven approach to intractable problems, with devastating consequences. I realised I was doing harm to myself and others, especially my three young children. I was angry, irritable, I was not sleeping, and my health was getting worse. I won't list all the things that were going on, but without some change I would not have survived. I was on a certain path to a mental breakdown or a heart attack.

Fortunately I had great supportive friends and family, and some had the courage to hold up the mirror to me. In a mindfulness class I often focus on attitude, and I know from that period how much acceptance, patience and letting go are important in seemingly impossible situations. I was stumbling backwards into the future, holding on to aspirations that I could no longer achieve, using strategies that no longer worked. Turning around was hard, and scary. The alternative though was scarier. 

I had always been interested in meditation, and had tried it without much success. Based on a discussion with a friend who had used TM for a long time, I decided I would give it a go. So, at the turning point in my attitude to life, I found a meditation practice that I could do and that had a positive effect. There was no miracle, but the sleepless nights became fewer, irritability started to subside, and I started to deal with daily life without any aspiration to do more than keep the family together. Was it the meditation or the attitude change? I think that it was both. 

For the next decade I managed to meditate twice a day, almost every day. As a single parent of three kids going through their teenage years, there were plenty of challenges, and I cannot say I dealt with them all well. But I moved slowly away from the crisis mode I had been in. 

I started to read about meditation, and slowly changed my practice, trying some Buddhist practices. I became a bit of a meditation tourist and tried lots of different courses when I could find them and make room to attend them. I kept up a regular practice, and noticed on the few occasions that I did not practice that I could feel the old irritability creeping back if only ever so slightly.

The next decade, as the kids moved on into adult life, I kept up my regular practice and moved back into a more responsible job. Continued practice was important in dealing with some highly stressful situations as a senior IT manager in a central NHS function. 

As I approached retirement, I started to think about a quiet ambition to teach meditation. Mindfulness was starting to appear in the media, and I was surprised to find that you could train to be a mindfulness teacher at a number of leading universities. 

So, with a couple of years to go before the pension kicked in, I registered to do a masters course at Bangor university. I agreed two days a month unpaid leave to do the studies, and set out with my usual optimism, confidence and drive. I remember wandering around Bangor, lost, trying to find the place to register, and feeling the same way I did 40 years earlier as a fresh maths undergraduate.

To get on the course, even though I had a long meditation practice, I had to do a standard 8 week MBSR, and I chose one compressed into a 7 day retreat. I thought I knew a lot about meditation, and I probably did - you should see my bookshelf.  But towards the end of that retreat I woke up to the fact that I was continuing to drive myself in my career in ways that were not beneficial. I was dealing with stress, but I was using my meditation practice as a crutch. Six months of reflection and discussion at home, I decided to retire a year early.

The masters course has not been easy for me. I had lots of strategies as a successful academic that did not seem to fit. The ego took a battering with the grades I got. I still struggle at times to understand the expectations, but I got through the taught modules and I am now working on a thesis. I am learning about "good enough" as a strategy rather than "be the best".

So, I left work in the summer of 2014, and shortly afterwards started teaching. I was fortunate in that lots of opportunities to teach landed in my lap.

Well, if you really want to understand something, try teaching it. To lots of people. In lots of different contexts. I really enjoy teaching mindfulness, and though I have dropped a few clangers I think on the whole the teaching I have done has been useful to people. And the participants in the classes have taught me more than I have taught them. Mindfulness teaching is a group experience, a journey, and the teacher is really a guide not a source of knowledge. Each journey, the guide learns as much if not more than the other members of the group. 

My own mindfulness journey continues. There are still many things that surprise me about myself, and many things I would like to change. But I think that the biggest change overall has been learning to enjoy the journey rather than hurry towards some goal. My old, competitive nature is still there, and it takes over sometime, which can be a good thing. But there are times when drive and competition are harmful, and I should know. So I shall continue to explore, in my meditation practice, in daily life, in teaching, and in the (blessedly few now) odd hours of sleeplessness in the middle of the night. 

Now, I have a thesis to work on. But, the sun is shining, and so perhaps a walk is a good idea. The sun will soon fade, the thesis will be there when I get back. 

What is Mindfulness?

I always struggle with definitions. We like crisp definitions, so that we can say something is or is not X, whatever X is. Life, however, is less black and white.

We all spend a lot of our time "mindless". We do things with limited or no awareness. In fact, one of our great skills is that ability to move something from conscious effort to unconscious ease. We all learnt to walk, and if we are fit and well walking is something we do without much thinking and awareness of all the muscles involved in moving us around. We learnt arithmetic, and do not have to think about the answer to the question "what is 2 plus 3?". Much of our life is run like this, and there is no problem with that.

However, habituation is something that can become negative. So many problems today arise from habits that we acquire that either become harmful or simply block out our enjoyment of life. We work to pay the bills, but sometimes work takes over and becomes an end in itself, and we cannot switch off until we are exhausted or ill. We worry naturally about a difficult situation, but worrying becomes a habit in itself and we start to worry about everything. 

Mindfulness for me is really about working with our habits, and choosing which to encourage and which to turn off. That begins with awareness. So, when something starts to present itself as a problem, turning towards it and examining it is the first stage of awareness. So, if I am spending a lot of time reading emails on my phone, I step back and notice what I am doing, how it makes me feel, what it is displacing that I could be doing instead. I may continue with the emails, or I might decide it is time to do something else, and even to rest from activity and just enjoy the view from the train window. 

From awareness comes understanding. Habits are not easy to change, and only by noticing them, noticing how they arise, and noticing what there effects are, can we build a motivation to change. So, that habit of checking my email every five minutes is something I do need to resolve and so I decide that I will only regularly check when I expect something or at certain times, say when I am working. 

Finally, deciding to change and do it in a positive way requires the right attitude. Understanding our nature as creatures of habit, rather than beating ourselves up when we keep doing something we can be more encouraging and compassionate to ourselves. So, when I find myself checking email in the supermarket for no reason, I can choose not to be annoyed with myself and bring some kindness and humour to the situation, and perhaps look up and notice how many others around me are slaves to their phones. Habits that we spent ages creating do not change overnight, but with patience and persistence they can. 

What about mindfulness practices like meditation? Well, some of the longer practices are really about watching the mind at work, understanding its habits, and addressing them in a gentle way. People often say that they cannot meditate because their mind is all over the place. Well, meditation is about recognising that and coming to terms with it. Often people think that meditation is about achieving some form of bliss, and indeed such experiences can arise. However, most of the time it is just watching the stream of thoughts and sensations and using simple techniques to prevent you getting swept away by them. For me, some of the most helpful meditations are very turbulent. So, if your mind is all over the place, meditation is probably going to be good for you, but do not expect a magic bullet to stop it. 

What about mindfulness in day to day life? That is what it is really about, helping to deal with the everyday problems, and sometimes the rarer but more challenging problems. There are simple exercises that help us to reconnect with ourselves. Checking in with our tense shoulders an whirling thoughts then taking a breath can really help ease day to day stress. It is as simple as that.

Mindfulness courses help develop day to day skills through formal and informal practices. 

So, for me, mindfulness is not a black or white thing. It is also more than shades of grey. When you really start to use it, life becomes more colourful. 

Now, about that email ....