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!


  1. Hi GM,
    Yes, it is holiday time, not that the ruffian on the stair ever takes a break, but some of us are still reading!
    You explain this stuff beautifully, and remove a lot of the intimidating baggage. The whole concept of mindfullness is alluring/terrifiying for someone who has finally realised that much of what I put my family through on a day to day basis can be recognised as symptoms of being on the ADHD/OCD spectrum, a manic without the depression. The up sides; the washing up and laundry is always done, bottomless energy reserves, no need for a cleaner and the undoubted source of any creativity I display is balanced by the relentlessness with which I chivy, badger and constantly interrupt my long suffering family. The serenity of this discipline beckons. Keep going!

  2. I have tried this. I found that for me the sauna at the gym was a good place because it was part of my routine, so I found myself there often. Also it was possible to keep my mind here and now by being aware of the sweat forming and dripping. Just concentrating on that.

    I haven't done it for a while. Think I will give it another go.

  3. Thanks gentlemen, sorry to delay in clearing your excellent comments, been away for the weekend. I shall, encouraged by your comments, continue with this topic ere long. Ark's sauna meditation sounds ideal - routine is important.

  4. I was trying to be mindful ("go Clear" Leonard Cohen "The Famous Blue Raincoat) today, but there was a bloke talking, strangely loudly, about how he faced a sacking for behaving inappropriately. Hmm. It was not easy to concentrate on mindfulness.

    So I went into the Sauna and was immediately caught up in a conversation about self employment and engineering.

    Both interesting actually, but I'm afraid I didn't get to sink down.

    Isn't there some shamanistic tradition of a "sweat lodge" or something? I can't remember what that is.


  5. A further thought on Rupert's "manic without the depressive" (apart from the fact that it sounds pretty useful) - seems to me mindfulness is for periods durintg the day; you can't spend the entire day in mindful meditation, or you would burn the dinner/miss the plane etc. But the meditative periods in the day may kind of seep out into the rest of the day,I find. Sometimes...

    Ark, weren't sweat lodges something to do with Native Americans, purification etc? And I certainly couldn't meditate with interesting conversations going on - what's the point of ears if you can't eavesdrop? Maybe, after all, you do have to be on your own for a really useful meditation - I know I do - unless you are Zen Master Ah Kei who can remain with an empty pure mind even whilst a Party Political Broadcast is playing in the same room.

  6. Fascinating post, Gloria.

    I look forward to reading more.

    Sorry not too have commented recently, sometimes life takes a while to catch up with itself.

  7. Thanks for the recent burst burst of encouraging comments XP,much appreciated. Know what you mean about life and the whole damned thing just slip-sliding away....

  8. A holidaymaker writes: How very interesting this all is. I'm useless at it; my mind hops all over the place more or less all the time. I find it slows, stops, even, when in the presence of nature and, down on my beloved rock, it did that a lot. I also greatly enjoy the benign stultification induced my draughts of red wine. But studied, disciplined reflection... I shall think on this. I think there is certainly something to it.

    Thank you, GM!

  9. Welcome back Charles. I'm not so sure you are useless at it, because it sounds to me as though the slowing of the Cowling neural activity when it is immersed in the natural world and your spectacular lump of limestone is just what I'm on about. The red wine haze, though very enjoyable, is a different thing, I think. More anon.