Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Meditating on Vulnerability

The most pervasive feelings I have at the moment are, without a doubt, feelings of vulnerability. Judging from conversations I’ve had I think this is pretty common. And when I go for walks in my local park it is obviously very present in people’s lives. There is a softness to people that isn’t usually quite so obvious. People are more reflective looking. Even the pace at which people are walking seems to have slowed. There isn’t that usual sense of na├»ve over confidence. This virus seems to have humbled us. It is interesting to know that humble (and humility) share the same root as humus. Humility brings us down to the nourishing earth. 
It is feelings of vulnerability that bring about this humbling. In Buddhism there is the traditional list of old age, sickness and death. It was his vulnerability to these experiences that inspired Prince Siddhartha to go forth (in the humble rags of a wanderer) and eventually become the Buddha. Sickness and death are two that are upper most in our minds right now. 

But we are vulnerable in many more ways than this. We are always vulnerable because we have needs. We need things – and these are often beyond our control. I think at the beginning of this crisis the panic buying was an expression of this. We need nourishment, we need loo roll! This lack of control gets easily ignored in normal times, it takes a crisis like this to really show it up. Once we are faced with this lack of control the feelings of vulnerability quickly follow. 

Similarly we need our friends and companions. We need affection and human touch. We need communication and love. The lockdown, especially if you live alone as I do, is also preventing us from meeting these needs (zoom just isn’t quite the same). No doubt we have many more needs that are to some extent or other compromised by this highly unusual situation. The clarity that this brings to our status as vulnerable beings is actually a tremendous gift. 

It’s a gift because with this clarity we can really connect with those feelings and own them more fully (as opposed to the common response which is to disown them). Accepting that we are vulnerable is the first step to appreciation and understanding. When we explore those feelings deep in the body and in the heart we start to see that it is in fact our vulnerability that makes love, care and compassion possible. Many of humanity’s greatest qualities are dependent on our vulnerability. Put another way, our vulnerability is an important condition upon which love and compassion depend. 

Think of the myths about the Greek gods who are often so cruel towards mankind precisely because they do not share our particular vulnerabilities. Conversely, in the tragedies compassion arises between the human characters because of fellow feeling. We share common vulnerabilities with each other and thus can feel compassion for another’s suffering. 

I’ve been meditating on vulnerability in a structured way and I thought I would share how to do this. It is a wonderful practice that I started doing a few years ago on retreat at Dhanakosa. During this lockdown it seemed natural to return to this practice and it is proving again to be very helpful. It’s hard to say exactly why it is helpful. I expect it is something to do with a deep turning about of habitual denial, aversion and shame.

It is a three stage practice:
1.       Acknowledge your vulnerability.
2.       Accept your vulnerability.
3.       Affirm your vulnerability. 

Each stage seems to flow naturally into the next stage, indeed they probably aren’t so much stages, more like phases.  Firstly, if the feelings of vulnerability are present then just spend some time becoming more familiar with them – notice how they feel in the body, in the heart. Be curious and explore them in whatever way seems natural to you. If you aren’t feeling particularly vulnerable you might start by reflecting on the many ways in which you are vulnerable (as mentioned above) and then just dwell in the heart area and see what happens. Secondly, take up the intention to accept that you are vulnerable. Really welcome these feelings into the heart, let them sink in, relax around them, give them space. Perhaps there is also here some work or effort needed to resist or let go of the habitual aversion or denial that may not be very far away. Thirdly, we reflect (in an embodied way) that this vulnerability is a goodness – that this very vulnerability is the source of many of our greatest qualities such as love, care, cherishing and compassion. Drop in the reflection and again just sit, allowing the heart to respond in its own natural way. 

I would recommend taking some time at the very start just to settle into your posture, notice where you are in the world, take in your surroundings and also how you are currently feeling. Then take as long as you like over it. If the feelings of vulnerability are too strong for you then back off and return to the body and the breath  - perhaps open your eyes and let in some light. There is no requirement to see it through to the end. When you have the resources to complete the practice then that is when it will happen. I wouldn’t recommend forcing it – there really is no point to that at all. In fact forcing yourself would be contradictory to the very intention of the practice.

If we can turn around the habit of denial and of being ashamed of vulnerability then we are simultaneously embracing life more joyfully. We are also living more fully in alignment with the way things are.  All the energy that often goes into the denial, aversion and shame is released and available. Paradoxical as it may seem, by acknowledging, accepting and affirming our vulnerabilities we suffer less.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Update on Our Drop In Classes - Meditation and Listening

In our current series of drop in meditation classes we've been practicing a simple variation of the mindfulness of breathing. During the term I was going to be taking this one practice and developing various 'ways in'. The form was going to stay more or less the same but I'd emphasise various aspects of it each week. In the event what has happened is that we have struck on a way in which seems particularly helpful. It looks like we will stick with this for the rest of the term. What we are doing is working with the language and metaphor of listening. 

I have effectively divided the practice into three stages. In stage one we actually listen. You could call this a period of the mindfulness of sounds. In the second stage we change direction and 'listen' to the body. In the third stage we change again and 'listen' to our hearts and minds, our inner landscape.

What is great about  this approach is the nature of listening. To listen is very different from looking (which is the dominant sense faculty for most of us and also supplies a dominant metaphor in meditation - 'observation'). Listening, although it is in a sense active, involves a greater quality of receptivity, of sensitivity, than looking normally does. We don't go looking for sensations of sound, as it were the sounds come to us. All we have to do is open up to the sounds, receive the sounds. 

I think it is this receptivity of actual listening that sets the scene beautifully for the following stages. As we turn our ear then to the body we notice more sensations than perhaps otherwise we would have. There is a virtual symphony of bodily sensations going on all the time. Having taken up a more receptive posture in the first stage towards sounds, the body now seems more alive and vital. And then in the third stage the same occurs - our feelings, thoughts and emotions seem all the more approachable, vivid and recognisable for having adopted this 'posture' of listening. 

There is also something about listening that reflects, and is reflected in, the actual posture that we try to adopt while sitting in mediation. Our physical posture can enhance or distract from this metaphorical listening posture. The body both reflects, or shows up, our inner psychological posture, and it can have an influence on that inner posture. The physical posture of listening is soft, yet poised. There is an alertness that is also open. There is no defensiveness  - our soft animal bodies are vulnerable and our meditation posture is one that embraces that vulnerability rather than hardening against it. Working at the level of the physical body through our posture we can then encourage this inner listening. Through adopting a good meditation posture we encourage the conditions whereby the inner ear can hear better.

That's a short ramble over the work in progress that is this term's drop in classes. If you're in Edinburgh and are curious to try it then come along  - Wednesday evenings 6.15pm at the Healthy Life Centre on Bread Street. See the website for more details.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Meditation and the Agitated Mind

An agitated mind can be an unpleasant or even painful thing. There is constant activity, movement, as images, thoughts and feelings race through our awareness uncontrollably. Along with all this activity comes an unsettling feeling. It can be as if we were in the company of a rather unpleasant stranger who just won't leave us alone. The feeling that we are not in control, that we can't just shut off the mental activity can make us feel helpless. This helplessness is a source of stress and anxiety. In desperation we might turn to various distractions, but mostly they make things worse. What to do?

If you have tried meditation you might have had some early 'success'. By which I mean finding some relief from the mental torrents. It is common for this early success to be short lived and followed by a period of frustration. I recently met a woman who described this exact scenario. To be honest it reminded me of my own early experience: Meditations full of ease and clarity, the breath - "delicious", was how this woman put it, but then the difficulties set in.

This pattern can be explained in various ways. It is a complex issue relating to expectations and wanting to repeat past experiences while not wanting to face present experience. It is about integrating those parts of the mind that are easy to integrate and moving on to work on the more reluctant parts. However there is hope, the fruits of practice are there for everyone to experience with the application of a skillful effort. On one level it is simply a matter of time on the cushion. It is also a matter of looking at lifestyle, of judging whether there are too many forces of disintegration in one's life. But it is also a matter of learning meditation skills: being able to set up the conditions for the mind to settle. Principal among these conditions are relaxation, non-wilful effort, self love, acceptance of our present state, a willingness and courage to turn towards the uncomfortable, patience and a trust in the process of the unfolding mind.

There are many practices that help in the calming or soothing of the mind. One that I find particularly good is a very simple practice using the breath. It is simple in the sense that there isn't a great deal of structure or form to the practice. There is no elaborate visualization, no progression through various complex stages. There is just a simple pattern to follow:

Start by settling into your posture, be sure not to be in a hurry to start. Take your time and allow the body to find a comfortable relaxed posture, but one that is also upright and poised. Take note of your surroundings, the sounds, smells etc that locate you in a particular place. Then just sit, with eyes closed, and notice how things are with your mind. Notice the content of the mind. There are thoughts, feelings and emotions. There are images and memories. All the activity of the mind that I mentioned above - just notice it without judgement. Sit with that for a while. You will probably be swept off into day dreams from time to time. Don't worry about that. After a short while you might be able to sense the agitation itself that is producing all this activity. It is a kind of energy or pulse, a restlessness, an agitation. There is this vibration behind the individual dreams, thoughts or feelings. It is there, as it were, in the background permeating our mind and generating all this activity. Let this sense of agitation come into greater clarity and make this the object of the meditation. With a loving awareness we hold this felt sense of agitation in view and we use the breath to soothe it. Imagine the breath flowing into that agitation. On the out breath we can encourage a softening, a calming down.

This process goes on for as long as you like. The longer the better. But it is important to take each breath as it comes and not to think ahead. It is no good either just having an idea of the agitation - we need to settle around the actual felt sense of the agitation in the mind or heart. As we do this it is also helpful to allow self-compassion to inform the experience. As we dwell on the agitation we notice much more directly that it is a form of suffering and compassion for ourselves can arise spontaneously. This is a great help. It motivates us and comforts us.

In such formless practices our intention is crucial. In this case the intention is to sooth the mind, to calm the agitation, and to relax. Having this intention is like giving ourselves permission. Or it is like being invited to live in a different way, to inhabit a different mode of being. And the intention is enough. The intention fuels the practice, gives it direction. All we have to do is allow the intention naturally to inform our effort. This will happen as long as we don't try to force something to happen.

This practice is a direct route to calming the mind by having as its object the very experience of an agitated mind. We don't get bogged down in the particular content of the mind but instead focus on the quality of our awareness itself. We can think of this as like a texture, or flavour or colour. For me an agitated mind has a spiky texture, a jagged texture. It is sharp and pulsing, energetic. Sensing this directly and dwelling on it with love and the soothing, compassionate, flow of the breath, will help you dial down the agitation and experience greater peace. This is a strategy without side effects that can be relied upon.

In the coming term of drop-in classes in Edinburgh I am intending to lead this practice most evenings. In previous terms I have gone for a variety of different techniques to show the breadth of meditation possibilities. But I this coming term I am going instead for consistency and depth. If you return week after week we will practice this meditation and develop some skill with it. Hopefully in that way the fruits of the practice will ripen more readily.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Spiritual Home - A Precious Place On Our Path To Flourishing

I used to work at a retreat centre that is soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary. As part of that anniversary they are collating stories from all the previous team members. I have just finished writing my contribution and a theme struck me that I wanted to share on the Live and Flourish blog: Spiritual Home. 

This is a phrase that you often hear from people who come on retreat. For them the retreat centre has become their spiritual home. It is a wonderful thing to witness someone saying. They are usually quite emotional and certainly full of gratitude. It is a feeling that some people have from the minute they step into the grounds. For others it is a feeling that grows over several visits as they gather experiences and build connections with people and the landscape. There is a sense of profoundness which I think this phrase 'spiritual home' communicates. The spiritual home is the place where we connect in profound ways with what is most important to us. It is the place where we have profound contact with other people - where we feel safe enough to allow our self to be seen. It is a place that holds or embodies a sense of the profound mystery of life so that we can approach it and try to come into relationship with it. It is a place that nourishes our most profound longings, for connection, for understanding, for acceptance and for peace. 

I think this is something we all need, whether or not we call it our spiritual home or not is irrelevant. We need a place that can be all those things. A place we can return to for clarity, solace and strength. It is especially good if this is a place where others share in a similar experience - such that the shared experience amplifies our own personal responses and takes them deeper. 

In a world that has been steadily flattened into scientific blandness, where anything remotely soulful struggles for legitimacy, we can struggle to find such places. If we are lucky to find such a place we might still struggle to allow those feelings to flourish as the inner cynic seeks to sabotage and dismiss them. 

My experience while working at this retreat centre showed me that this is a need many people are happy to share and express - even though often it wasn't something they were particularly looking for. But once that need was recognised, once the spiritual home has been found, and we realise it has been found, the doubts are usually banished. We have found something so precious and meaningful that the shallow scientific perspective shrinks to its proper (and important) place in a much more profound vision of life. This shift is a retrieval of something that our culture more generally has lost. As such we are going against the grain and we might need to seek out the support of others who understand and appreciate this richer perspective on life.
I know all this might sound strange to you. However, if you do sense a longing for such a place I would recommend you relax around that longing and not go desperately seeking it out. Perhaps it isn't too fanciful to think that our spiritual home finds us rather than us finding it. I would trust that if you are opening up in general, opening to life, then you will discover a spiritual home sooner or later. The place will find you, you just have to be receptive enough to hear when it is calling. 

My spiritual home is this retreat centre where I used to work. I go back regularly for retreats and sometimes to work leading retreats. Perhaps it's because I'm getting older, but these days I'm very aware of all my previous visits, the history I have with the place. It is such a rich experience. I'm reminded of all the aspiration of my naive 25 year old self who first moved there. I'm reminded of the trials, struggles, mistakes and successes of my path to flourishing. I'm reminded of all the connections I've made with fellow travellers on the same path. I'm reminded of the great sea of humanity that is struggling towards wholeness. I'm reminded of the preciousness of this human life, and its brevity. Of course your spiritual home doesn't have to be a retreat centre. It could be a special place in nature that holds these things for you. It doesn't have to even be a place  - it could be a group of friends or a regular event. 

This blog is something of a ramble -spontaneous reflections that just bubbled up as I wrote my contribution for these 25th anniversary celebrations. I don't think there is a great point or message. Perhaps if anything it is just to share the concept of the 'spiritual home' and how important I think it is, especially in this modern world where these subtle poetic concepts can be so hastily dismissed. It is possible for us all to find such a place where the mysteries of the human heart can be witnessed and taken seriously. When we do then our path to flourishing is made so much easier.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A seasonal thought for the day.

Renewal  - that's a pretty strong theme in life at this time of year. Hopes, aspirations, dreams and reflections seem to almost force themselves into our minds. It's easy for me to get cynical about this. The list of broken new year resolutions is endless and the whole process comes around again all too quickly. Dismissing this annual flood of hopes and reflections can seem like the rational thing to do.
I try to resist being this cynical at new year because hope for a good year ahead seems to me a healthy hope to dwell on. It also seems a good idea to have a time in the year where we particularly take stock of things. The speed and complexity of modernity can squeeze out time for reflection  - time to ask the profound questions like 'is my life fulfilling?', or 'am I making the most of my life?' , or 'does my life express my values - what I really believe to be important?'. 

If nothing else reflecting on our life at new year is a precious opportunity to renew our purpose - to reconnect with our values - to affirm the choices we have made - injecting perhaps some much needed vision into the day-to-day. If we go too long without doing this the danger is that we forget the very things that animate our lives - leaving a peculiarly empty feeling  - a 'what's the point?' kind of feeling. 

I'm going to make a point of allowing some time to follow this annual inclination to reflect on life. Maybe over a quiet coffee at home, or out on a walk in nature. The landscape seems to assist these hopes, aspirations, dreams and reflections in welling up into clearer forms. Another way is to dialogue with a friend or partner. Sometimes it takes the act of trying to articulate these reflection to bring clarity to them. 

On the other hand, if you are fed up of the cycle of broken resolutions and would like some support with this process, our Focusing and Dialogical Mentoring provide just the right kind of context for this work. In these sessions we listen, empathize and make the occasional suggestion. Like being in front of a mirror we reflect you back. In this way you can achieve a degree of clarity about your life that you might otherwise find difficult to reach.

One way or another I hope you also, like me, manage to find some time to reflect, renew and reconnect at the turn of the year and that this brings you a greater sense of purpose and enthusiasm for life.