Saturday, 11 September 2010

Mindfulness Resources

If you are interested in funereal matters only, this post may not be useful to you; it is intended for those who are thinking about mindfulness meditation. As my reader may have noticed, for me the two are very closely related.

So instead of rambling on as usual, allow me to list for you some resources that might prove useful should you wish to embark upon some mindfulness training; even if you have already done so, there may be some additional resources for you in this list.

I'll start with a quote from Wikipedia: "Jon Kabat-Zinn (born June 5, 1944) is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center. His practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers, led him to integrate their teachings with those of Western science. He teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness."

(Now don't you go into a spin because there's stuff there about Zen; mindfulness meditation as it's usually taught has no religious content unless you want it to, and I'm not going to argue with you yet about the meaning of the word "spiritual." JK-Z's achievement is to draw from a Buddhist tradition something from which I would imagine just about any belief system can benefit from. His work is pragmatic, medically-orientated and - inspirational. And he has not set himself up as some tedious self-appointed guru with a non-existent degree from an offshore university and the only answer to life, the universe and traffic congestion. I expect you know the sort of people I mean.)


J K-Z's big book is "Full Catastrophe Living." That's the big coursebook, I understand, aimed at people with depression or chronic pain. I've not read it.

I have read his "Wherever You Go, That's Where You Are," and it seems to me an excellent starting point - it has been for many people, I'd guess.

"The Mindful Way Through Depression" is a team effort, and a very high-powered team it is, including J K-Z, and a leading UK proponent, Prof. Mark Williams, Oxford University. The other two authors look like hot shots, too. It includes a CD of meditation guidance. I would expect it to be interesting and helpful even if you are not (clinically) depressed, and I'm about to start it myself, despite being irritatingly cheerful most of the time

There is a fair-sized mountain of books about meditation. The few I've looked at seem to me pretty useless unless you are already half-way to being a Mighty Serene Being, Zen Master, Mindful Sage etc already. As I've noted before, they generally say "Sit quietly with your legs crossed." (Ouch! I'm out of here already...) "Empty your mind..." (But if I could do that, I wouldn't need your book, O guru!) The above books are very much not like that.

Matthieu Ricard's background is the upper echelons of the French scientific establishment but his current way of life is that of a Buddhist monk. He has written a book simply called "On Meditation," which I want to read, having heard him discussing it on the radio. I have read his book called "Happiness," and that might be useful to you. I'm not with every word he writes, but so what? We're magpies, picking up the shiny bits that help us, wherever we find them.

Susan Blackmore is a remarkable woman, an expert on consciousness, with a powerful interest in the findings of neuroscience, and a desire to see how much of them she can merge with her exploration of Buddhist meditation techniques. Her book "Ten Zen Questions" is, in the best sense, demanding. You do not have to be interested in Buddhist doctrine as such to get a lot from it. Her little book "Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction" I found fascinating, though it's not directly about mindfulness. She is a heroic explorer of her own head, and therefore of yours and mine.

You can get meditation CDs by J K-Z, and no doubt other mindfulness proponents too. They are very helpful - essential, I'd say, if you can't get to a course near you.

But your best bet is probably a course, with a real live tutor and interactions with other students. This will probably be doing it, not learning about it, it should be quite demanding and, I hope, very rewarding. The next best thing may be an on-line course that I'm told you can purchase on the "Bemindful" website of the UK's Mental Health Foundation.

But of course our major resource is ourselves, just as we are, today and right here. We simply need some help to experience and see that clearly. I hope the above stuff may help people to do so.

Incidentally, I hope any Buddhists reading this (?) are not offended by my reassurances that this mindfulness business doesn't require you to be a Buddhist. I don't intend to be in the least scornful about those who follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and those who can master the true rigours of Zen meditation training- only of those who pretend to do so, and mislead the rest of us.

As it happens, I've got a lot of time for some strands and aspects of Buddhism, but that's neither here nor there - the point is that JK-Z and colleagues have developed something from Buddhist techniques that is of huge value to people with not the remotest interest in anything they might see as "religious" or "spiritual," and I don't want them to be put off helping themselves because they shy away from religions. It is, of course, of huge value to people with religious beliefs too, Buddhist or whatever.

The other reason for being cautious about the relationship with Buddhism is my experience of a watery sort of Buddhismlite back in the sixties - mindfulness is nothing to do with a cultural veneer of orientalism, a sort of fey wishfulness about chilling out, man, an interest in the mysterious East just because it's not the familiar West. (There may have been - were, I'd say - good reasons for so many young people taking the journey East, actual or metaphorical, in the 60s, but let's not pursue those just now.)

Mindfulness is rapidly gaining ground as a mainstream medical treatment, many doctors now see it as a valid treatment option, and there aren't, apparently, enough properly trained teachers to meet the need. It's also of great value to those of us who are not in distress, but simply want a better balance, more calm, in their thoughts and their lives. And who want something to help them deal with the realisation of their own mortality. Which is about where I came in.

So the books, CDs and online course may help bridge the gap until there's a course with a place near you, and you've managed to put the money aside to enroll (£180 - £200, typically, for an eight to ten week course. I found it worth every little penny. It doesn't suit everyone, but if so, you'll find that out early on - before enrolling, if you get the sort of excellent guidance I got.)

I get no comission out of all this, you know.....

Later today, this post is taking herself off to the Med for some pre-winter sunshine for a couple of weeks, and will once again take up the threads of mindfulness and funerals thereafter. Vaya con whatever dios or nondios you subscribe to. Go with The Flow. Be mindful. May the Force...etc.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Our Ineradicable Faults?

In a comment on my last post, Charles referred to what he sees as a fault in himself which he had always seen as ineradicable - a lack of mindfulness, getting carried away by a full heart, that sort of thing. Actually, the people who scare me are those whose hearts never do fill, and who do apalling things with great calmness - but anyway, I want to develop Charles' prompt a bit, because it very much relates to mindfulness practice, and a lot of other things too.

Something a mindfulness course seeks to develop in people is an acceptance of themselves. Here's a paradox, then.We might well join such a course to be different,to move on, to improve, to develop something in ourselves; it may be a relief from pain or depression, a greater calmness and emotional balance, less fear about the ending of life, relief from anxiety in an over-stressed and rushed working life. But then the course tells us - or rather, seeks to develop in us - acceptance of who we are, just as is.

Almost looks like a classic paradox. Remember the sheet of paper which has written on both sides "The statement on the other side of this sheet is untrue"?

I don't think the "change me/accept myself" thing really is a classic paradox as in the example above, unless you bang away at it with your powers of reason. In any case, surely the point about a brain-teasing paradox is that it defies reason - in which faculty I am generally a great believer, incidentally, so I'm not walking away from reason into a comfortable cloud of alternativism for its own sake. I think this self-image puzzle works like this, and it's very simple.

Through guided meditation you can relax the muscle, as it were, of your self-critical attention, and accept your thoughts and feelings just as is. You may also be able to accept people in the session who would normally drive you swiftly towards the exit and a large G&T. So it can help you to be less quickly judgemental about others. Outside of meditation, you will of course sometimes need to exercise both your self-critical muscle and your judgemental muscle in dealing with others. Fotherington-Thomas is not the goal ("I forgive you molesworth for those uncouth words...") or you will get ridden over. But. The practise of mindful meditation creeps up on you somewhat. You may find that you are changing, not by trying with naked willpower at the point of contact, but simply because you are calmer about your self-preceived flaws. You can change youself by accepting yourself just as you are, not by trying to change yourself, or giving up on yourself. So that's the paradox - you change yourself by not trying to change yourself.

Dammit, this stuff sounds so bland when you try to write about it. That's because it's experiential, not very yielding in terms of analytical categories or abstract concepts. But here's an example. Readers of this noble work will know that in my view, trying hard to empty the mind for meditation is like trying to chew your own teeth. The brain's job is thoughts,as long as it's conscious, thoughts in a great long string. So the simple techniques in a mindfulness class help you to hold your mind in one place, as it were, and when, not if, your thoughts start wandering off, you are encouraged to bring them back to that one place (e.g. your breathing, or part of your body, or the act of walking slowly.) Not to fight it or fuss about it - "I must try harder to meditate, I must try harder to.." - but just to return to base, no comment, no self-criticism. If you have to do that a hundred times in ten minutes- there you go, just do it and don't fuss. (That's the hard work bit.)

Little by little, that acceptance works outwards. A young mother practising mindfulness commented that instead of her usual swift, unthinking reaction to her teenage daughter, that sent both of them them off down well-worn routes of argument and recrimination and left her feeling crappy (daughter too, no doubt) she paused just a moment, said something a little different and more thoughtful, and domestic miracles ensued - no row, more constructive outcome, no feeling crappy about herself. That's not about willpower, trying to be different, it's actually about inhabiting the present moment and responding uniquely to it. That's a powerful thing.

The book title that drew me towards mindfulness: "Wherever You Go, That's Where You Are." Very simple. Unavoidably true. I'd add "whoever you are, that's who you are."

There are no ineradicable faults. There are only ways of feeling and behaving. We can change them by accepting them. In any case, a fault is a virtue when the context changes.