Monthly Archives: April 2012

Non-attachment

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When people think about non-attachment, they may worry that the closer they manage to get to it, the less interesting they might become.  After all, isn’t it our views, our opinions, our likes and dislikes, that make us who we are?  Who are we, if we take all that away, and are simply ourselves?  Instead of vibrant, multi-coloured beings, would we become sort of grey and wishy-washy?  Without our emotional outbursts would be less than we are with them?

I like to think that non-attachment is just a way of holding on less tightly to our beliefs, our opinions, our goods and bads, our rights and our wrongs.  It doesn’t mean that we can’t still love strawberries and cream, or sunny days.  Of course we’ll still love our families, our children and our friends.  If we’re lucky, we may also love our work and our homes.  We don’t need to get greyed out by a developing spirituality.  Instead, we can still live our lives to the full.  If we want to wear bright colours and really enjoy them, so be it.  If we truly savour a huge piece of chocolate cake, why not?  We are being mindful in our appreciation of the flavour and texture!  If you’ve ever met someone you would describe as deeply spiritual, would you also describe them as boring?  Most of the inspirational teachers, healers and yogis I’ve met have an infectious zest for life, a joy and humour which engages everyone they meet.  The trick is to hold onto life less tightly and discover the joy inherent in more and more of life.  Becoming more present in day to day living, and finding less time to stress over the yesterdays and tomorrows.  Being human, we will always have likes and dislikes, but instead of the huge troughs and peaks of our lives, perhaps the ground can become a little more even, our path a little easier, simply by releasing our strong hold on the way we want things to be.

When we first learn to meditate, just the sitting and being still can be so hard.  We very slowly become more comfortable with this, until we can lengthen the stillness, and gently start to quieten the mind.  After many such practices, we may eventually have a more profound experience; we may genuinely experience a deep inner peace.  We will want to recover that same sense of peace the next time we sit quietly.  We may not find it.  It may take many more practices before we find it again.  And here we find the challenge – we are to practise non-attachment even here. When we meditate, we learn to let go of the outcome.  Some days, it will be wonderful, we will feel wonderful.  Other days, it will be hard – our mind will refuse to quieten down, our body will be aching and desperate to move.  And we still practice, regardless of whether it is easy or hard, wonderful or terrible.  And in continuing to practice anyway, we are learning a steadiness of purpose, a steadfastness which we can use in our lives.  We learn to let go of the outcome in all our pursuits.  We don’t let go of what makes us ourselves, but we do let go of the tightly-held beliefs with which we attempt to make ourselves right, and others wrong.  We find the unity between us and those around us, instead of the differences.  Not boring, not dull, but actually quite spectacular.

Saying yes to life

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The other day, when I was parking my car to do some shopping, I noticed another driver waiting for me to reverse into my space.  Sometimes, I’ll be the first to admit, I can be slow to park, especially if it’s a tight space, but on this occasion, I parked quickly and easily.  And yet, those few seconds in which I was parking had held up another driver to the extent that her face was all grumpy and tight-looking.  As soon as I was in the space, she shot me a filthy look and zoomed off in search of another space, closer to the supermarket entrance.

This small encounter got me thinking about what sort of day this lady was going to have, if someone parking –  in a car park! – could upset her so greatly. To be fair, she may already have been having a bad day, before I cost her valuable time.  I don’t want to judge.  But it’s worth noticing when we get so worked up about such small things, and how we can cause ourselves to have a bad day.  Maybe we could make our day better if we tried to snap out of the frame of mind which is judging everything to be less than satisfactory.  Maybe we could notice the good things as well as the bad.   Maybe we could avoid labelling the minor events of our lives as good and bad  – just saying yes instead of no  to all those small details of life.

In yoga, we have the terms raga (attachment) and dwesha (aversion).  To attain a steady state of mind we need to learn to transcend these two – by not being so attached to the way we want things to be, and to stop saying a  big  ‘no!’ when things are not the way we want.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts inspired by the spring season, which came early and hot this year.  Now we appear to have gone back to winter, with cold, wet weather, storms and gales.  Whilst so many of us do feel better in glorious sunshine, we have to flow with what is.   We can enjoy the ‘good’ times while they last, but not rail against the ‘bad’ times.  We wouldn’t appreciate the sunshine as much if we didn’t have the rain, and we wouldn’t live in a green and leafy country.  We wouldn’t appreciate the days everything seems to go ‘our way’, if we didn’t have days when everything goes ‘wrong’.  But the lesson of non-attachment (vairagya) is to moderate our responses to what we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong.  To flow through our lives with less resistance to what is.  To rejoice in the sunshine, but to accept the rain without complaint.

We might habitually say ‘no’ on the inside to traffic jams, bad weather, meeting moody people, interruptions to our practice, phone calls when we’ve had a much needed early night, bills……the list goes on!!

What things do you find yourself saying a big ‘no’  to in your life?  How would it feel if you tried saying ‘yes’ instead?

Family life and spiritual development

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walk-familysunset Unless you are a nun or a monk living remotely from others, you will have the additional challenge of developing or maintaining your spiritual practice alongside many personal, social and work commitments.  Some teachers have suggested that this is so difficult to do that most serious aspirants will find themselves shedding relationships along the way. For those of us who wish to develop or maintain a spiritual practice as well as our existing commitments to our families and friends, the going might be tough, but it is possible.

In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of finding time to maintain or to begin a yoga or meditation practice within the context of family life.  Today, I want to look more deeply at how our daily lives can feed into our practice.

The mindfulness practice discussed previously is a powerful way to make every moment rich with potential for spiritual awareness. Think of the wonder a small child displays about his or her world. The freshness, the newness of their eyes.  A walk with a toddler can take so long, as they pause to examine a leaf, a twig, or a stone every few steps. Going that same route alone, we tend to be focused on our destination, barely noticing our surroundings. Yet how much richer our experience would be if we took the time to really look around us as we walk, to develop an appreciation for our neighbourhood, for the beauty of nature, and to take time to smile at those we meet along the way. The world becomes a much friendlier and lovelier place!

Jesus said that people would need to become like small children to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we pause to consider what this means, I think it touches on this innocence and sense of wonder that our children have. We need to become more open to the inherent joy and beauty of our lives.  And on the days that this joy is hard to come by, how often do you find that happiness in the company of your child?  In their unconditional love for you, their parent?  That simplicity of a child’s outlook, when a cuddle with a loved one puts so much right – we can really learn from that!

But I think another way we can learn from our children is in the way they live in the moment. Toddlers and young children are known for their tantrums and fluctuating emotions. I’m not suggesting that we start to follow their example and throw our own tantrums – although many of us do display our own adult versions at times!  Very young children may still be learning to cope with their strong feelings, but they don’t usually bottle them up and repress them in the way they might when they get older.  They really feel them!  They really show them! They’re upset – they cry.  They’re angry or frustrated – they shout or hit.  But the main difference between a young child and an older child or an adult, is that they then tend to let that emotion pass – the energy of the emotion subsides, and they will generally return to their more sunny selves.  What a lesson!  Children just are more present in the moment than us.  They may act out their feelings, but then they let them go.  If the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is taken in the sense of being in touch with our own spirit through our presence and our awareness, then children are winning hands down.

The sad thing is that as we teach our children to cope with their feelings, we could inadvertently be teaching them to store them up, to suppress them, and then their emotions may stop coming out in that same instant, cleansing way it did when they were small.  Somehow we need to find balance in the way we help our children cope with their feelings – to encourage them to show their feelings, albeit in slightly less dramatic ways than a toddler tantrum.  We need to be clear with our children that all their feelings are acceptable, even though some actions are not.  We must not make it seem as though sadness or anger, for example, are not allowed – they’re very much real emotions, even if, from our adult perspective, the feeling seems out of proportion to the cause.  We will encourage our children to share their feelings with us, if we extend ourselves, every time we can manage, with empathy and concern; if we genuinely listen to what they are saying and wonder why they are saying it. Remembering that we do not have all the answers, and just because we might not like what our child is saying, doesn’t make it wrong. Honouring our child’s individuality, and his or her right to their own feelings. Loving the fact that they are not a little extension of ourselves, but have their own unique spirit.  And helping them to maintain – and ourselves to rediscover – that presence they had when they first came into the world.

What other ways have you found yourself learning from your child?  In what ways do you think your practice actually grows with your family, despite having less time for asana or meditation practice?  Leave a reply – I’d love to hear your experience!

Finding time to be present

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In my yoga and therapy practice, particularly in my work with new mothers, people often say to me that they have no time to themselves, and certainly no time to sit in meditation.  I know from my own experience of early motherhood that there really was no time to call my own in those early weeks and months.  Yoga definitely took a back seat!

So it might seem that new parenthood would be the very worst time to try to start a meditation practice, when the demands on our time are so vast and often so overwhelming.  But the benefits of even a short meditation can be even more beneficial at this time.

In fact, the opportunities for meditation are rich and varied  for a new parent.  Simply practising mindfulness in any activity, being fully present in that moment, is a form of meditation.  Take that overwhelming feeling of connection with a young baby that a parent experiences.  Total mindfulness.  When calming an overtired infant, it can be helpful to calm yourself, simply focusing on your breath, slowing it down, and watching the effect this has on your child.  Pranayama in action!  At the very least, a parent can cope better with what is often such an emotional strain when they take a few conscious breaths.

Being fully present when feeding, instead of being tempted to read, watch television or check social media on your phone, can be a form of meditation.  Even if you only manage it for one feed now and then – simply allowing yourself some time with your baby when there are no other distractions.  None of us can aspire to be mindful all of the time, but we could try to choose a particular activity in which to practise presence of mind – ideally something we do several times a day.  Even a mundane task can be a chance to remind ourselves, to simply be in the moment.  So we can be mindful when we’re washing up, preparing or eating a meal, or doing the housework.

Buddhist author of Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children, Sarah Napthali, recommends what she calls ‘the one-minute grab’:

‘During a full day with children, you occasionally find time to yourself which typically lasts about one minute.  I often use this time to practise mindfulness of the breath and am constantly amazed at the results that even one minute of focussing on the rise and fall of my breath can achieve.  It’s calming and somehow leaves you feeling more positive.’

Even when our children are older, we find that the minutes we grab for our yoga or meditation practice are frequently interrupted.  An active baby or toddler finds mummy bending over or lying on the floor an irresistible climbing frame and potential playmate.  An older child might want to join in with our practice. Whilst it can be frustrating at times and all our peaceful feelings might fly away instantaneously, I love the point made by Tibetan Lama Choedak and commented on by Napthali in ‘Buddhism for Mothers’:

‘…practice and parenting should be as one and…we needn’t compartmentalise one from the other.  If your child cries when you are halfway through your meditation, your concentration needs to flow smoothly, without resistance and mental comment, to what is required of you in that moment: comforting your baby.’

So we flow from our practice into the demands of our family life, so that they become indistinguishable.  Instead of wishing things were other than they are, and that we had completed a wonderfully relaxing meditation or invigorating asana practise, we flow with the reality of the present moment.  We accept our daily life and make it a part of our practice.  We learn to simply be with whatever the present moment brings us.

If you have tried to maintain or begin some kind of yoga or meditation practice whilst bringing up your family, I’d love to hear about your experience – leave a comment below.

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‘Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals’

                                                                                                                      ~ Mahatma Gandhi

A particularly relevant quote that came to mind after I wrote my post today.

Peace quote

Loving-kindness

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In Buddhism, as well as in yoga philosophy, there is a term maitri, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.  Imagine someone you hold most dear:  a partner, a parent, a child.  Feel that very simple and uncomplicated love –  an unconditional love which means you love them despite any of their faults;  you want only the best for them;  you talk and act in kindness to them.  This is maitri.

Now try to apply that kind of loving to yourself.  Can you be that kind, that uncritical, that forgiving, that accepting of who you are?  This is something a lot of us find hard to do.  What kind of language do you use when you talk to yourself?  Do you call yourself names, do you criticise yourself and laugh at your own dreams?  There are plenty of others who will do that for you.

Now think about someone in your life who is difficult, someone who is tricky to get along with.  Can you apply this  loving-kindness to them?  Hard, isn’t it?!  And yet this is something we all need to try to become a more loving, caring and peaceful society.

Buddhists practise meditations in which they expand their ability to love, from their most dearly loved, through to themselves, their friends and neighbours, to those they have no strong feelings about either way – they don’t love them but they have no negative feelings about them either. Only when this feels easier do they start to expand their circle of loving-kindness even wider – to those truly difficult people in life, and to those they have never met.

To apply this practice in our own lives, we start with ourselves , or with our loved ones, and work outwards in ever-increasing circles of love and kindness. We start to see more clearly that others are not so very different from ourselves, and we see the ways in which we make them different – the ways in which we use our attitudes and our beliefs to put a wall around ourselves.  Working gently with ourselves can help us to show more compassion to others as well.   Talking more positively to ourselves, switching off the negative mind-chatter through meditation or yoga practice, can enable us to grow into our true potential.  Cultivating maitri towards ourselves and others is one of the ways that Patanjali recommends for creating a calm and peaceful mind, alongside compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (Samadhi Pada, Sutra 33).

The gift of the present

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How many times during the day are you truly in the present moment? How many times are you mindful of your actions, your breath, your body, your thought processes?

For many of us, it is very few.  We may move through our day on auto-pilot, dwelling on something from earlier, the day before, or last week.  We may be busily planning into the future – what we are going to do when we finish work, at the weekend, or when our holidays arrive.  Sometimes, we need to process earlier events, and sometimes we need to plan future events in order to move our lives forwards, but all the time??

To be in the moment is to be fully in the present, and this is a true gift.  The present moment is the moment in which we can change everything;  it is the time when we yoke together our body and our mind.  All else is the mind moving forwards and back in time, being coloured by our attitudes, our beliefs, our hopes and our fears.  If we rush through life towards the next goal, we are missing so much of the joy of life.  We are not noticing the good things in every day – yes, every day.  We may be missing the miracle of our breathing, of our ability to move and stretch our body, the fact that we have clothing, a home, loving family and friends – and we have all this right now. On our darkest days, these are the things that might bring a smile to our faces, and give us the courage to carry on.  On our best days, these are the things that embody us, and keep our feet on the ground as our spirit soars.

On my first Jin Shin Jyutsu training, led by an inspirational teacher and healer, we were asked one morning how many conscious breaths we had taken since waking.  Life can be such a rush, particularly when attending an intensive training course, that many of us had woken up, got ready and rushed to class.  We then remedied that with a group practice of the 36 breaths – closing the eyes and focusing completely on each of 36 breaths.  This is a practice I often repeat when I need to bring myself back to the present, and one which you can adapt if you find 36 too much to begin with.  9 breaths repeated 4 times through the day, or even just one set of 9 breaths in the morning, or whenever you need to bring yourself back to the moment, can make a big difference.

If you practise yoga, you will be used to tuning in to your body in asana practice, feeling the sensations that arise and the stillness within as you move into each posture.  If you practise other exercises, you may find that they also help you to focus on your body, and to calm your mind.  Any exercise or activity can be practised with more awareness, more mindfully, to bring you into the present.  Whether you are walking, cooking, gardening, washing up, or cleaning the house, you can bring this attention to your actions and to your senses, bringing you fully into the moment, and helping you to become aware of the pleasure inherent in even mundane activities.  And bringing you into the gift of the present.

Being in the flow

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In my last post, I wrote about the importance of being able to stay with our uncomfortable feelings, and to let them pass. In my yoga teaching and therapy practice, as well as in my own personal life, it is evident that we really struggle with our emotions, and may hold on to perceived hurts for long after the event which caused them.  We may feed our sadness or our anger, dwelling on the events or circumstances of our lives to which we attribute the emotion, going over and over it in our minds.  We can have a relatively small encounter which upsets us, and by repeatedly bringing it to mind, we can blow it out of all proportion;  when it’s a more significant event, we can hold on to the associated feelings for years.  Once we dwell on and feed an emotion, it can become a part of us.  It is no longer just an energy flowing uncomfortably – but ultimately harmlessly – through us.  Instead, it crystallizes and becomes an attitude.

We all have these attitudes or outlooks, which can affect our whole lives and the way in which others perceive us.  We all know people who we would describe as angry, sad, fearful or anxious – as well as those we would think of as basically happy, giving and forgiving types.  We also flit in and out of these modes of being throughout our own lives.  So what started as a brief, passing sensation can last much longer and colour our whole life.

But just because the attitude has begun to dominate our general mood, doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever.  The emotion may seem to have solidified, even to have become immovable, and yet it can still melt away once we become aware of it and begin to work with it.  Even if anger has become such a basic part of our nature that we react irritably to minor events and explode when faced with bigger challenges; even if we are so fearful that we feel we cannot move forward in our lives.  Things which seem permanent can change and dissipate over time.

Firstly, we need awareness.  We must not close our eyes to the way we are.  We must see the difference between the way we would like to be, and the way we truly are.  Not judging, but seeing kindly, with compassion for the difficult parts of ourselves.

Secondly, we need to desire change, and to create the space to change.  One way we create this space is through the breath; through meditation.  Just sitting quietly – watching the breath, stilling the mind.  Noticing the space between the inbreath and the outbreath.  Calming the mind so that the endless chatter starts to ease away.  An analogy often used is that of  the sky – letting our thoughts be like clouds, just floating through our minds without holding on to them or spinning off in all directions.  In this way, we slowly learn to  stop fanning the flames of our emotions, and to be less reactive in our wider lives.  Whilst we are learning – and this may be for the rest of our lives! – we must continue to be kindly observant of ourselves, to reflect on our progress and not only our inevitable failings.  And whilst we are developing this kindness for ourselves, and learning not to identify with our difficult feelings – acknowledging, for example, that anger is a passing energy rather than turning ourselves into ‘an angry person’ – we could also think more kindly of the difficult people in our lives, allowing that they too can be other than the way we perceive them.

Feeling your emotions…

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We call our emotions feelings, yet sometimes – or even, usually – we do anything and everything to avoid feeling them. When is the last time you really allowed an emotion to flood your body and then stayed with it?  If you felt sad, did you just allow that feeling to be with you, feel where it affected your body, whether it made you feel heavy in a particular place, or did you try to smother it by distracting yourself with television, reading or food – maybe two or all three of these at once?   If you felt angry, did you just notice how it made you feel on the inside, or did you act it out, shouting, stamping your foot in impatience and frustration?

And did your actions, in the end, make you feel any better?  Or did you, after an outburst or too much chocolate, just feel ashamed and wish you’d behaved differently? Our negative emotions – feelings – are such powerful sensations, that they tend to scare us and make us deny them as far as possible.  But different emotions affect us in different ways – they may make us feel heavy, as in sadness, hot, as in anger, or paralysed with fear.  When was the last time you managed to stay with those uncomfortable sensations, to truly experience them and watch them pass?  However intense those feelings, they usually start to subside surprisingly quickly if they are allowed to.

Emotions are simply energy states in the body. Some, such as anger, are high energy states, whilst others, such as sadness, are very low energy states. Our clumsy attempts to deal with unwelcome emotions usually try to redress the energy balance – for example, when we act out our anger, we release some of our excess energy by shouting or slamming doors. When we feel sad, if we try to make ourselves feel better with stimulants such as chocolate or alcohol, we lift our energy levels, at least temporarily.

But the difference if we attempt to simply observe our emotional states can be so revealing. We can feel the emotion on a physical level, and truly experience the ancient wisdom which finds the seat of worry in the stomach, sadness and grief in the lungs, and anger in the liver. We feel the discomfort of the emotion, we stay with it, and let it go. In meditation, we simply observe each sensation as it arises, and learn to stay in the moment, regardless of whether we perceive that moment as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We learn to create a space between our feelings and our actions, a lesson we can begin to apply in our daily lives.

The more we maintain and honour our meditation practice, the more present we manage to stay in our daily lives, and the less reactive we become. When we feel pushed by the circumstances of our lives, we find it harder and harder to maintain the space between our feelings and our actions, and the more we react, the more of a habit that reaction becomes. Our regular meditation practice can help us to keep that space, and help us be brave enough to feel our feelings – ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

More musings on spring…

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We really are having a beautiful early spring.  I am so enjoying the sunshine and blue skies, and the energy of the new season.  I heard a priest talking on the radio this morning about Lent, and how the meaning of Lent is spring.  How it signifies the death of the old, and the birth of the new.  So many of us give things up for Lent – for me it’s chocolate again this year! – but how many of us take up something new?  Many years ago, I heard someone talking about Lent being an important time to adopt positive changes, rather than denying ourselves something for a matter of weeks, and then simply going back to our old selves.  But this message of Lent, and of the spring, is so often forgotten.

Think of spring cleaning, and we think of cleaning out our homes, but could we take this further and clean out the clutter of our wider lives, our minds, our beliefs, our behaviour patterns?  Could we use the energy of spring to rid ourselves of our outdated opinions and thoughts, could we really die to our old selves, and be reborn?  Could we let go of the old, and see clearly what we need to do to move forward in new, fresh ways?

Buddhist writer Pema Chodron suggests in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’ that we need to hold our opinions more lightly, to stop ourselves from taking a stand and using our position to alienate and distance ourselves from others. To be less attached to our beliefs.  In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, we are urged to let go of everything, to let every moment be like a little death.  If we don’t let go of each moment as it happens, then how can the new moment be born?  It is so easy to end up living in the past, dwelling on perceived slights and harms, and to miss the beauty of the moment.

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the Safety Energy Lock 9, located around the lower shoulder blades, relates to this cycle of life.  Its meaning is ‘let go of the old, receive the new’ and interestingly the next Safety Energy Lock 10 is known as the ‘warehouse of abundance’.  This suggests that by letting go, by letting the natural cycle of life work in us, we will  step into our true nature, one which is truly rich and wonderful.

One way we can work with letting go is by watching and meditating on the breath.  Sitting quietly and just observing the breath flowing in, flowing out.  Allowing ourselves to let go with the outbreath, and then to receive the inbreath – not taking, not reaching and straining with the breath, but simply allowing it to flow in –  and then to leave again.  Letting go of the old breath cleanses the body, and makes space for the new breath to flow in. Similarly, in life, letting go of what no longer serves us allows a breathing space, a place where possibilities are endless, where the more positive has room to flow into our lives.  In pranayama practice, we learn that it is the spaces, the pauses between the inhale and the exhale, where meditation can truly begin.  At first, we work gently, just noticing the pauses, without trying to sustain them in any way.

In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the pause at the end of the outbreath as a profound experience:

‘Each time you breathe out, you are letting go and releasing all your grasping….Each time you breathe out, and before you breathe in again, you will find that there will be a natural gap, as the grasping dissolves.  Rest in that gap, the open space’ 

(Rinpoche 1992: 68-69)

 Every aspect of our lives tends to be full and cluttered, not just our homes, our days, our diaries, but also our mind with its endless chatter, its endless preoccupation with what might happen, what has already happened earlier…it’s easy to miss the present moment.  This is what mindfulness meditation is all about.  Really savouring the moment, feeling yourself walking, cooking, eating, whatever it might be.  Sitting and observing your breath is a wonderful place to start and to embrace the spirit of the season.