I’ve noticed that the Spring bulbs are starting to break through the frosty ground. I hope that you’ve had the opportunity, over the last week, to try the awareness practice and break some new ground. You may have experienced a subtle change in your sensory perception, as you engaged with all of your senses to take in the world around you. You may have become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and your responses. In my experience, it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight but gradually you start to notice more, you become more alert to the subtleties of everyday life in each passing moment. It’s as if we’ve adjusted a lens – The external world appears brighter and sharper and our inner world of thoughts, emotions, and responses comes into focus. We sense them and feel them. We recognise them. Continue to practice awareness. Remember, practice strengthens the mindfulness muscle.
This week we’re going to work to enhance our awareness of our inner world. We’re going to become more familiar with what can be referred to as “the monkey mind” – that’s a mind that jumps around all the time, jumping from one thing to the next, rarely settling. Most of the time we don’t notice that our minds are jumping all over the place. Thoughts arise of their own accord, with little or no influence from us. The interesting thing is that the thoughts themselves are not the problem, if we leave them alone they will very quickly disappear again, of their own accord. The problem arises when we engage with those thoughts and thoughts become thinking. When we focus on the thoughts, engage with them, we feed them energy. We create stories around them, we add fuel to their fire. If we can become more aware of when thoughts arise, we can learn to accept them just as they are, not engage with them and allow them to pass. If we can do that, we can help to settle the monkey mind. Our minds are like a glass of muddy water: if we continue to stir the mud the water will remain cloudy. If we leave the mud alone, the mud will gradually sink to the bottom of the glass and the water will clear. The mud is still there but it isn’t clouding the water. Sometimes things can appear from the mud when we have clarity. The seed of the lotus needs the mud to germinate and from the mud the beautiful lotus flower emerges.
The monkey mind
A lot of the time we run on autopilot, not aware of where we’re at in ourselves. We can make a daily commute without realising how we’ve got from A to B. We can feel annoyed or grumpy without really understanding where those feelings have come from. We are mostly unaware of where our minds are and unaware that we’re unwittingly feeding repeating patterns of behaviour and old, conditioned, habitual responses. The practice, this week is to become aware of our monkey mind and learn to recognise when we’re feeding it and the patterns that it gives rise to.
Awareness practice 2 – Recognising the unsettled mind (the monkey mind)
Use something as a reminder to check in with yourself at various points across the day, maybe an alarm on your phone or if you’re on the bus or train, use each stop or station to check in or if you’re driving, when you get stopped at traffic lights, check in. Say to yourself, in those moments, “Where is my mind now? What thoughts are arising? What feelings are arising? What is that feeling, that emotion, that sensation? Where in my body am I feeling it? How do I feel about that feeling? Do I recognise the storyline I’m running? Can I just be with these thoughts, feelings, and sensations and make a choice not to engage with them and let them pass?” Don’t worry if you can’t fit all those questions in, the idea is just to begin to notice, to be aware of what’s going on in your inner world, to buy a bit of space in which to choose how you respond. For example, if If you’re at work and the phone rings and you see it’s someone with whom you’ve previously had a tricky conversation before you pick up the phone if you check in you might notice feelings and emotions in your body that could influence how you interact on this call. In that moment, you might recognise you’re about to repeat behaviour based on old facts. You can choose to take the call with an open mind and it might just result in a more productive call. If you are somewhere where you can make a note, record your answers to those questions and your responses. Gradually, you will recognise patterns, you will learn to recognise the thoughts that trigger those patterns. When you become aware of that, you can choose not to engage and to break the pattern.
Awareness can be rich and enlightening but it can also be difficult and confrontational. We all have preferences. Things or ways of being that we like and don’t like. Sometimes it can be hard to accept when we recognise patterns in us that are not what we hoped for, that we’ve turned a blind eye to and allowed to play out over and over. Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening while it’s happening, with acceptance and non-judgment. Having become more aware of what’s happening, it can be difficult to meet that with acceptance and non-judgment. The self-compassion break practice is going to help to meet difficulty with kindness and compassion so that you can learn to be with whatever is happening with acceptance and non-judgment. It takes courage to break a pattern or habit that has been with you for a long time, it may even have come to define who you are. Be kind to yourself as you work to let it go, to replace it if it doesn’t serve you well.
I think it helps to understand that, in some way, we are all suffering. To some extent, we all want to alleviate suffering and increase happiness (for ourselves or for others). That’s our common humanity. Sometimes, we can feel helpless in the face of suffering. We don’t know how to alleviate it or we’re not sure how our small contribution can make any difference to a situation where there is suffering. However, no matter how small, how apparently insignificant our contribution may seem, if our intention is always to alleviate suffering and increase happiness, with awareness of thought and action we will serve that intention well. At the very least we will not add to the suffering and that might just be enough in that moment. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do. Just being with the suffering, meeting it with acceptance, kindness, and compassion, can be enough.
I find that the garden is a great place to become more aware of my preferences, habits, conditioned responses. I use the garden and gardening, tending to plants, as a way of checking in. I’ve always believed that I’m not good with indoor plants (based on historical evidence where quite a number of them have failed to make it past a few weeks) but I love cactus and we have a good few in the house (and they are thriving, so there is evidence that my belief is not entirely founded). I got a new cactus as a gift at Christmas. It came in a gorgeous little pot and he looked very happy in his new home beside his fellow cacti (is that the plural of cactus?). However, very quickly he started to wilt – healthy cactus are firm to the touch. This wee soul was spongy. My conditioned response was to blame myself. I must have overwatered him, under watered him, whatever, it had to be my fault – I was no good with indoor plants. That thought, that belief self arose. By checking in, I became aware of it but rather than engage with it, I let it pass. I salvaged what I thought was one healthy leg from the cactus plant and re-potted it and got rid of the rest of it, accepting that for whatever reason, it just hadn’t survived the transition from garden centre to home. I gave the saved leg everything it could possibly need to survive and hopefully thrive, but alas, it too went the way of the rest of it. When I inspected the roots I noticed a couple of tiny flies. Maybe they were responsible for the plant’s demise. I discarded the plant, accepting that not everything is destined to live a long time. He offered a brief but beautiful contribution to the cactus collection and I was grateful for that. I scrubbed the pot clean and it now provides a home for a new cactus. In another example, there was a little fledgling in the garden last breeding season (a blue tit), all fluffy
and new to the world, unaware of the dangers outside of the safety of the nest. It had made its maiden flight but flew into the kitchen window, bounced off it and landed with a bump on the table. My instinct was to save it, to pick it up and take it to safety. It was chirping to attract the attention of the parent birds who could be heard in the trees at the back of the garden, frantically calling out to the fledgling. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t come to retrieve their baby. I was flapping about like a crazy parent bird but realised that instinctive response wasn’t serving me (or the fledgling) well. I stopped flapping and became aware of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I realised that in my desire to help, I was actually doing more harm. My conditioned response was adding to the suffering rather than alleviating it. My own happiness (to save the bird) had become the intended outcome without me realising it. I stepped away from the fledgling and once I was a safe distance away, the parent bird came down and encouraged the fledgling to take flight again. Doing nothing was the best thing I could do in that moment.
In moments of difficulty or suffering, the following practice is helpful. It helps to access our self-soothing system. We are reminded that difficulty and suffering is part of our shared common humanity and we meet it with kindness.
Practice 3: Self-compassion break
Put your hand on your heart. Breathing a little more deeply than normal, in and out and say to yourself (in a kind soft voice):
“This is a moment of difficulty or suffering”
“Difficulty or suffering is part of everyone’s life”
“May I respond with kindness”
Allow yourself to feel soothed, to understand that it’s ok not to be ok, and just be with whatever is happening, with acceptance and non-judgement.
In the garden this week, or when you’re out and about, look out for the first signs of spring. Snowdrops are usually the first spring bulbs to break through. Put food (and possibly more importantly) water out for the birds. This is a difficult time of year for them, with snow and ice making it difficult for them to find food and water. It’s also a great time to notice the migrating geese. They fill the crisp blue winter skies with their enthusiastic honks and beautiful V formations.
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