Here’s one of the things about living communally: you never know what your housemates will be getting up to. Somebody always has an idea for something, and often as not it’s one that I can’t help becoming engaged in.
So it happened that I found myself sitting in the first session of Michael’s Mindfulness course this week. Michael has done a lot of post-grad work on the subject, and has just designed a six-week course—on which a dozen of us have embarked. He’s an experienced and gifted coach and facilitator, and after one lesson I’m fairly certain this course is going to be an interruption to my life-as-usual.
Here’s a definition of mindfulness that we were given, by one Jon Kabat Zinn (author of Full Catastrophe Living):“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the moment and non-judgementally”. I am solidly, one hundred per cent in favour of that in my life. Purposeful, present, without negative judgements—what a way to live.
However, I can see that an important point of access to mindfulness is going to be meditation, and that gives me some pause. I have a chequered history in this regard. My views may have been coloured by my first real encounter, many years ago, in the person of the husband of a good friend of mine. John raved about the exquisite energies he experienced while meditating. That was all well and good but my observation was more that he dozed on the couch six hours a day while his wife held down a part time job, took care of the house and minded three very active kids. The marriage didn’t last long after he became a committed meditator and I had no trouble understanding why (though I freely admit to a one-sided view of the situation).
Several years after that experience, I found myself deeply involved with driving our training business (30 staff, 13 training rooms, inner city premises in Sydney and Melbourne), plus life with two teenage kids. I was stretched rather thin and felt it might be a good idea if I varied the pace with a bit of guided meditation. I couldn’t say whether the practices I took on “worked” or not but my efforts didn’t meet the wan hope I had of stilling my mind.
Since then I have on a regular basis taken a few minutes of quiet time with the objective of achieving inner peace. In the process I have developed a little patience, learned something about breathing, and certainly came up with some great ideas, which tend to flood in whenever they sense extra room. But I have rarely glimpsed the still mind, or my friend’s husband’s spurts of ecstasy.
So the mindfulness course has me confronting this lack of success.
This morning while doing my yoga practice in the Yoga Shed, Michael brought in a podcast for us to listen to. It was a funny and engaging presentation by Pema Chödrön, a thoroughly American Buddhist. Her theme was about letting go of the life of comfort and familiarity that we attempt to set up around ourselves, which she regards as a recipe for producing a hard shell of isolation. Conflict?—bring it on, she says. Let the world in, and learn about yourself in the process.
She told a story that made me grin. There was a monk who had lived in a cave in Tibet for 25 years, meditating day and night—practicing the discipline of patience. He was visited by a mischievous Buddhist master who set up camp in his cave and made himself right to home. You might guess what came next. The master chatted away, wandered around touching things, ripped a page or two out of the texts he found, breathed his very fetid breath at the practicing monk—tormenting him until the poor man lost the plot completely and flew into a screaming rage. Well, the master observed innocently, how successful have YOU been at practicing patience?!?
The point was that there are more effective ways of learning about oneself and the world than by living in isolation.
So this business of communal living that I am engaged in—this having to say hello when your eyes are barely open in the morning, of somebody using your favourite cup, of not being able to find the tool you want, of hearing something for the twentieth time, of having to (try not to) calculate the fairness of things, of having to consider five other opinions when buying something, of having to ask for help—this business puts me four-square in the middle of dealing with my wayward emotions and reactions on a regular basis. My sailboat navigates waters that can be a little choppy, but here’s the thing: there is always wind to fill the sails, and my boat tacks and jibes and zigs and zags. I get places.
So, according to Pema Chödrön, the practice becomes: breathe in the whole nasty truth of oneself. Breathe out kindness and generosity. Breathe in blame. Breathe out love. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Watch this space (for more spaciousness).
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There is a little friend visiting our deck as I write—he’s called a superb fairy wren and he’s just beautiful. The problem is, he’s a few bricks short of a full load. He has a little friend who comes with him, towards whom he must be feeling either very amorous or else very antagonistic, because he flies and flies and flies at this other wren. However, those of us with superior brains have figured out that the little visitor is simply his reflection in the glass, and are bemused that the little wren hasn’t worked out that, from those hundreds and thousands of encounters, all he gets is a headache and a sore beak. He’s been doing this for days, and I can hear him tapping on the window right now. Fly, smack. Fly, smack. Fly, smack. Every now and then he hangs on the deck wire or chair back to sing his little trill, and then soon he’s at it again. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap….
He really could use some mindfulness training. Can you imagine the lunacy, the utter mindlessness, of doing something unrealistic over and over and over and over and over and getting nothing but a headache from it? If I thought I’d ever do anything like that, I’d have to…I’d have to… … …whoops, maybe we won’t go there.
Breathe in, breathe out.