Saturday, 28 August 2010

Nursing, living and dying - Ian Miller, mindfulness and Flow

I owe this post to Ian Miller, the "impactEDnurse" (see blog/website.) As well as a great deal of no doubt invaluable practical medical advice for nurses (how would I know? What is a cannula, anyway?) he writes about what's needed between the ears of a good nurse in A&E, as we tend to call it in Pomland. (Ian is an Australian. He has that Australian directness as well as a powerful line in cauterizing crudity and black humour which I enjoy very much.)

You might think that meditation practice is a long way from the urgency, mess and pain of a busy emergency department in a large hospital. What Ian has done, it seems to me, is to show us that to survive and do a good job in such an environment, you need total immersion in what you are doing. If you can't achieve a relaxed concentration on this task, and then the next and then...but let the urgency of the whole situation throw you off balance, you will a) probably make mistakes (and we don't much like the idea of mistakes in A&E, do we, people - especially not if it's us groaning on that trolley!) b) burn out under the huge stress of it all and get cynical and exhausted. He writes of vertical workers, and horizontal workers. If you want to find out what he means, do visit his blog.

Ian tells us that "Mindfulness is a way of learning to relate directly to unfolding experience."

That doesn't tell us
how to get there, but it sums up neatly enough the way being mindful enables you to be totally absorbed in the reality of what is happening in front of you, as opposed to letting in the dozens of possibly relevant but not in the least helpful thoughts that are just waiting to fragment your clarity of awareness.

Anyone who has consulted a really good medic will have felt that calm concentration, as they watch you, listen to you, and think/take in absolutely nothing but the you that is in front of them at that moment. Such people are likely to be healers, not just doctors and nurses. They can allow the reality of a patient to absorb their consciousness.

Ian then relates this necessary mindfulness to a concept new to me - Flow.

I quote from his website again:
"The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term Flow to describe this state of engaged activity. Total immersion in the present moment produces an energized focus in which the doer of the action and the action itself merge. Time may condense or expand, tasks are accompanied by feelings of calm or joy, complex activities seem effortless."

At this point, I began to get unmindfully excited. Things connected, bells rang.

Great writers describe the way a story sometimes seems to take over and almost write itself; they talk of a character that simply walks off and does what s/he wants on the page. (They also point out that is not always, or even often, like that!)

If you enjoy jazz, you will know that sometimes the same musician can be improvising nicely enough, other times the instrument seems to be playing them and the music is in a different league (one said to me that it was better than sex when this happened - well, he'd know...)

If you enjoy cricket, you will have seen some of that quality in Broad's batting yesterday and today - great batting looks unhurried and entirely right, whereas in fact I believe that the delivery from a fast bowler leaves you, when it bounces, about 1/3 of a second to decide what stroke to play - except that's not a decision, it's the whole highly trained person responding instantly and in totality to the situation before them. "Time may condense or expand..." A great goal in football - ditto. Good defenders suddenly go into slow motion around the striker, there's only one place for the ball to go, and it does.

Great dancers make it look easy. They seem to hover for a moment. They don't reach an arm up, their limbs seem to float. "The doer of the action and the action itself merge." Can we tell the dancer from the dance, the musician from the music?

Of course these people are "technically" masters, disciplined and fantastically hard-working - but that alone can't do it. A classical musician once told me there is no such thing as "pure technique," that doesn't make music, it is necessary for music to happen - which is a live thing. What does do it, is mindfully addressing the moment, it's the Flow.

Most of us aren't masters at anything, but we can develop our mindfulness, we can allow the Flow to develop in less complex and challenging circumstances.

Maybe people who can manage a degree of mindfulness in life and work, maybe people who have at least sometimes felt the Flow, can face their own mortality more calmly, live more fully, with awareness of death enriching rather than constricting their lives?

Calmness is catching, just as panic is - you can see that in any stressful situation. Mindfulness also enables fellow-feeling and compassion (more of this big idea later.) A degree of mindful calm is a valuable thing in a funeral ceremony, especially if something goes wrong - the bereaved family will forgive you anything except getting in a state. They need your calm. How much more important this must be in a busy A&E. How wonderful it is when we read of it in a disaster situation, where a calm centre saves lives (though sadly, not always that of the unselfish and calm person him/herself)

More another time on
how to develop this much-vaunted mindfulness. because when the pressure is on, it's a bit late then suddenly to decide to be mindful!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

mindfulness in a funeral

It is, I would guess, ill-advised to enter a mindfulness meditation when one is ministering at a funeral...but mindfulness is not, I think, entirely about meditation practice itself. It is also about understanding, feeling, in a particular way about - well, you know, time, life, death, mortality, the present, and so on...

At some point during a funeral ceremony, I usually find myself up front on my own looking at a coffin, whether it is by a graveside and people are arranging themselves whilst the undertaker does a bit of business with ropes and bearers, or at a crem whilst people are still filing in. I could look elsewhere, but that would look odd, and I don't want to.

If I get it right, it's a moment of strong focus on NOW. There's usually some tension underneath it. (will Sam in the control room fade the music as requested? or - if it rains and blows as hard as it did on the way here, will anyone hear anything and how soon can I get them back under cover without indecent haste? or - I didn't know X was going to say anything, I hope we don't overshoot, it's a busy morning at Slime Green Crematorium - you get the picture)But that focus, a hard look at the coffin for a minute or two, can cause all that to drop away. "What if" evaporates, "should I have..." dissolves, "when should I..." disintegrates, and I'm left with a powerful feeling of the present moment in a sort of super-reality. Hard to explain. Daresay other celebrinisters have similar experiences.

So it's not a meditation. I think it comes from a changed view of the importance of the right here right now, the need not to worry about anything else - and it's a real help, I'm grateful for it.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A Painful Funeral

A crem funeral followed a few days later by the burial of the ashes in a little wooden casket.The crem was no worse - and certainly no better - than most of them, and the burial site was in a de-consecrated churchyard in a very beautiful position, mountains behind, salt marsh in front, huge skies. Ancient beautiful little church. A favourite place of he who had died, since childhood.

Why do I single it out? Because the young man who'd died was in his late thirties, and his partner was also a young man in his late thirties. Hardly unique, but I had seldom seen such raw grief. The family of he who had died were neither rich nor sophisticated, not particularly eloquent, and united in their grief with the surviving partner.

The funeral was a "good" one, insofar as the big and important things were said, the death was faced and directly addressed, the life was, as we like to say, celebrated.

I remember one critic of the life of the composer Benjamin Britten saying that homosexual men were in fact would-be pederasts who sublimated their desires by accepting as second-best a relationship with an adult male (the arrested development/neurosis view, one might say.) Others not entirely sympathetic to a tolerant view of homosexuality have written of it as though it were simply a matter of promiscuity and easy satisfaction. (Underneath this view may lie a prejudice that homosexuality is not the "real" thing.) And it might be natural to think that a tolerant view of sexuality and gender is more likely amongst city-dwelling middle-class well-educated people than amongst working-class small-town not especially well-educated people.

All this crew, on the evidence of this funeral, were talking nonsense.

I have seldom seen such pain, from the partner every bit as much as the family.

I'm straight, as it happens and for what that's worth, so this isn't a heart-felt personal appeal, based on my own sense of identity, for enlightened views of gay sexuality.

Except - perhaps it is. I speak as I find.

I have seldom seen such raw grief at a funeral.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Cropredy Mindfulness

I've been drying out, over the last couple of days, after my visit to Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festival, at the village of that name near Banbury. (If those names mean nothing to you, other perhaps than "Banbury," I'll add a brief paragraph at the end of this post to whet your appetite...)

The Met Office were heroically incomepetent on this occasion, forecasting light showers and dry periods Thursday, and cloudy with sunny spells for Friday and Saturday. In fact, the showers were heavy and frequent right through the weekend, which made many of us cross because we came underprepared. On Saturday night there was a torrential downpour complete with lightning. The site turned muddy and a bit squalid (though nothing like Glasto mudbaths of yore.)It really would help if all us peace and love newagers stopped dropping litter into the mud.. but that's another story.

Festivals are a strange and interesting environment to me, but I'll get to the point soon, so for now, just to say that the intense throng (only 20,000, but a small arena), the evil weather, and middle-class late-middle-aged neuroses about the best time to visit the chemical toilets, (really not so bad, comparatively speaking) how to keep relatively clean in the mud, how to eat something nice that didn't cause repeat visits to aforesaid loos,anxiety over the integrity of the tent, combined to produce in your reporter a fine mix of tension and exhilaration.

How to maintain a degree of balance and calm, so as to get the most from this event?


Not easy in this context, but I can report a couple of modest successes. One brief period where I managed to feel entirely in the present moment, in my tent, at a safe distance from Rick Wakeman - only about five or ten minutes, trying to think only of my breathing, bringing my thoughts back every time they strayed. Seemed to help a bit.

Another moment: after a splendid breakfast at the village hall (what lovely people)I wandered into the large and beautiful old church and sat down. As my regular reader will know, I am not a Christian, but one would have to be exceptionally insensitive not to find in such a place an inherited calm, the result of centuries of ritual, spirituality, tranquil thought. It was not difficult to be present and undistracted in there. Not for long, though - a little girl came in with her dad, she just wanted to see what was inside. All fine. I didn't feel like shutting these people out, so "hello," and on with the day.

A different moment - the excitement of being close to Bellowhead at full throttle. Totally absorbing, and in a sense entirely present, but not the reduction of thought and feeling that you get from mindful meditation. So - a different sort of presentness.(Have you seen them? Dangerously good, brilliantly theatrical, unique.)

Lastly, in the middle of what to me was, I'm afraid, a horrible "Celtic" rock "opera" (sorry boys) about King Arthur - the storm and rain smote us. Just when I was deciding that I would never attend another outdoor festival, and wishing all heavy rock guitarists eternal incarceration in sound-proof rooms, IT happened with my doing almost nothing: instead of grumbling about what should be/might have been/won't be/wasn't, I was there, not caring about what might happen, not categorising or assessing the experience, just being there, with these people, now. I held on to that for a bit. It felt like freedom to me.

Then the Arthurians cleared off, Fairport were left to their own excellent devices, we had "Matty Groves," "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" (I get closer to tears with that as the years go by, a moment of finely-wrought sentiment) and finally and forever, "Meet On The Ledge."

Brief moments of mindfulness that enriched the weekend and helped me to get the most from it. Not the regular meditation set-up, just the best I could do on the hoof. It still helped.

I'll try to write abit more about this business of being in the present, another time.

Note: Fairport Convention - the band that more or less started the "electric folk" or "folk rock" genre. Many lineups down the years, and some truly exceptional talents (Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Simon Nicoll, Daves Pegg and Swarbrick)they can play and have played almost anything. "Folk" is a pallid term for this music. They have run a festival in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy, near Banbury,for thirty years. They have an excellent relationship with the village. (The festival originated in a scratch gig at the village fete - two of the band lived there then.) The festival is limited in size, very well-organised, has a very wide range of music (this year brilliant jazzer Martin Taylor, young traditional guns Breabach from Scotland, singer/songwriter Thea Gilmour, Mabon from Wales, Status Quo for goodness' sake, Little Feat, Fairport themselves etc etc - so not really just a folk festival but plenty of folk, folkesque and traditionally-derived music. Very good value at £85 or so. No or very little crime, and so far as I could see, no drunken fights etc. A powerful tradition of meeting up with friends year after year. If you don't want to camp, you can B&B in banbury. If you've a narrowboat, it's on a canal. Excellent and very large bar - Wadsworth's 6X. Nicely sloping arena field. If you want to know more, go to FC's website. If you're already bored - sorry. Even funerealists and would-be meditators have to let their hair down sometimes...

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A Few Non-Definitive Notes on Mindfulness

Preamble: Earlier in this young blog's life, it was mostly about funerals good and less good, undertakers, attitudes towards death and funerals, and it often revolved around "The Good Funeral Guide," that fine work. It attracted excellent and helpful comments from a particular circle. Now it's more about mindfulness, for a while at least, and the comments have fallen away somewhat (partly because it's holiday season, even for Charles!)although it's still getting plenty of hits, relatively speaking. I'll definitely return to funereal matters again and from time to time. Meantime your comments are always welcome, whether we agree or not, but today? today we have a bit more mindfulness. Last time: what it isn't and why I was drawn to it, today: a little on what it is.

First, please help me and yourself by stripping away from the word "meditation" all associations with trying to be coool, looking different, scoring points by being in touch with the mystic East. Scrub round the patchouli, ditch the beads etc (nothing wrong with them, but you get my drift.)

Let's just remember the core meaning: meditation is thinking in a concentrated way about something, and staying with it. That's the same in Los Angeles, Leicester or La Rochelle, OK? In Beijing, Bangalore or Bolton. Whether you're wearing a kaftan, a Paul Smith suit or nothing at all. Whether you're lying on your back, sitting on a stool, walking slowly along or even in the goddam lotus posture (how it hurts- can't be doing with it.)

So: mindfulness is a training in meditation techniques.

It teaches you ways of training your mind to stay in the present, and when (not "if") your mind wanders off into memories, fantasies, anxieties about the future, what-ifs etc etc, it encourages you simply to bring your thoughts back to the present. It encourages you not to feel a failure when your thoughts wander, not to worry if you nod off for a bit (no big Zen monk to whack you across the back with a stick - the stick is calm persistence over time.)Just do it by doing it.

No mantras, no scriptures, no formulae.

So you just empty your mind? Well no, that's fantastically difficult without years of training (the Zen monk stuff.) But you encourage your mind just to stay where it is, on the object of your thoughts. These objects vary according to the particular meditation you are engaged in. Often it's your breathing. It might be each part of your body in turn. Etc. Simple, though not necessarily easy.

It warns you against magical expectations, against hoping that something dramatic and sudden will happen.

It encourages you to stop wishing you were different. You are you, it says, that's exactly where you are and who you are, and you can't be anyone else than yourself, so - that's what you work with and on.And if you stay with it, you find you are less pissed off with yourself, less likely to judge yourself unnecessarily harshly when there's no need to.

(This stuff is quite hard to write about, I find, in a general way, it's easier to describe some of the exercises, which I might do another time, though there are many people easily available who can do it better than me, and I'll tell you about them.)

I find - and people who practise mindfulness generally find, if they stay with it - that it helps me avoid slipping into long-established responses and routines that are actually unhelpful, even if they feel good at the time - you know, the instant "that's just typical, you always...." stuff that gets you no-where much except watching a door slam shut.

I find it is calming, and not just when you're meditating.

It's no magic bullet - e.g.I still get beside myself at the selfish, aggressive and dangerous driving that blights our roads, but perhaps a little less often. I still take the wrong things too seriously, but maybe not so frequently and deeply.

I'm emphasising the "no magic bullet/no instant cure/it's hard work" line because we're all a bit tired of marketing bullshit, I think. Acutally, I think mindfulness is a really great thing, and it can, and increasingly is, helping a large number of people, including those with serious difficulties.

If you practise mindfulness, or know about it, do tell me if you agree. If you are new to the idea, do let me know if this is making any sense at all, please!

Monday, 2 August 2010

mindfulness and mortality

It's tedious when someone buttonholes you with the Answer To It All, so I won't do that. It's also tedious if you already know about the Answer and someone still insists on sharing her unrequested enthusiasm! Nevertheless...

If you suffer from a chronic condition that causes you pain; if you suffer from depression (you'll know that's more than feeling a bit fed up sometimes...); if you feel over-stressed, prone to panic attacks, and have high anxiety levels; if you are scared of death, or as I've been arguing, more likely to be more scared of the annihilation of your sense of identity, then:

Mindfulness may be able to help. It may not suit you. It's not a magic bullet. It's surprisingly hard work. It's not an instant thing, you have to work at it. It's not a cult. It's not excessively expensive (a once-a-week eight week introductory course is the typical structure, and I paid less than £200.)It doesn't promise instant enlightment, magic transformation or super-powers. (I already have superpowers, which is why I know exactly what you're thinking...) It does not require you to follow a set of supernaturally-directed beliefs, it's not a religion, but it shouldn't interfere at all with your religion if you have one. It doesn't have a set of difficult jargon designed to exclude outsiders. It doesn't have the superficially attractive trappings of a different and exotic culture, it's not "cool" - it's the Plain English version. All these things I like about it.

I don't get any cash for recommending it, which is a slightly less attractive aspect of it from my point of view, but should reassure you.

OK, so that's the typical British habit of defining a thing by negatives, before moving in very slowly and cautiously towards what it is.

Interlude: Why I did the course, why I am practising it: I help with non-religious funerals, and talk to many bereaved people.This is not gloomy or depressing work, and I don't regard myself as a morbid person,but it is difficult and demanding, occasionally stressful, and very draining sometimes. It also brings you regularly and face to face with the simple fact of mortality.

Most of us celebristers are not in the first flush (in fact not so far from the final flush) which is probably a good thing, because life experience, e.g. having been bereaved onself in the natural order of events, ought to make us more sensitive towards the bereaved people we're trying to help. Well, I hope that's true of me, anyway. But it does mean that my own mortality is a little more often in my awareness. I think an afterlife is, er, extremely unlikely (I'm being polite, and were it likely, I find it a most unappealing idea),so I am facing the eventual end of ME-awareness. Now, ME is often a pain to me, doesn't do as well as she should, and so on, but is the only ME I've got.

So how to deal calmly with all this, how not to rush round in a sweat trying to write "Anna Karenina part 2" with one hand whilst cleaning out the gutters,recording chart-busting songs, and learning to cook world-class beef rendang with the other hand, before it's too late? i.e. how not to worry about time slipping by, how not to be "wild with all regrets," how to hold it all in balance, how not to pretend I'm 21 again, how not to behave like a complete arse?

Mindfulness certainly helps. It helps with the occasional stresses of funeral work, it helps with the dread of annihilation, it helps with the inevitable aches and agues of age. It is calming, and it helps me be more tolerant (yeah OK I know, but you should have heard me before mindfulness...)

What is it? Well, hopefully, if you're really interested, you'll steam off round the internet and find out. Nevertheless, on the off chance that you're as lazy as me, I'll tell you a bit more about it (or at least how I see it) next time.