Category Archives: mindfulness

Inner peace: the best companion

inner peace is bestThe path of mindfulness meditation leads to a deep appreciation of life, a real joy that rises from just being what you are, where you are. But on that journey there are difficulties, and it’s useful to recognize that this will happen and accept it in advance. It’s not all heavenly light and bliss! A lot of the practical work of mindfulness is sometimes painful, sometimes boring, but it’s all worth it because the payoff is huge. It’s a simple observation that I have found very encouraging when I feel like I’m drowning in a raging sea.

Often the path of mindfulness is about trying to be aware as possible and then simply dealing with what happens next. This is easy when the awareness is one of contentment or self-love, because what happens next is wonderful. But as we increase our awareness we increase our perception of things we have often gone to a great deal of trouble not to think about. The suppressed, the painful, the embarrassing, the feelings that burnt us so badly we swore we’d never feel anything if it meant feeling that again. They all come up; it’s part of become more mindful, more sensitive.

So a sign of deepening awareness is the bad stuff coming up, and if we sit with it then it will be healed. And of course there’s also the bliss, the revelations, the ‘yes’ moments. And then after all that comes the abiding deeper sensitivity to daily life. I’m more grounded, more in my body. I’m less lost in thoughts, more present with what’s going on around me and within me.

That’s the practice. Sit with as deep an awareness as you can muster and let the awareness erode away the confusion. Trust that what’s coming up is being brought into awareness to be released, and hang on. Let mindfulness carry you out of the madness and into the clear light.

Trust mindfulness. In any situation (internal or external) trusting a fresh, vital awareness of what you are feeling, sensing and thinking will always be of benefit. You will deal with difficulty better, and enjoy things on deeper and deeper levels. Ultimately, you will experience more moments of inner peace.

The experience of inner peace is the best teacher, the best medicine, the best companion for the journey of life.

Mindfulness from the corner of your eye

bloom like flowersThere’s a Great Tibetan Llama whose name escapes me. He said “The delusions are like naughty school boys. If you stare at them they do nothing; but when you turn your back they start to act up.”

It is possible to over exert in meditation and get a bit of tunnel vision. We lose the nuanced detail and become preoccupied with ‘goals’ and ‘beliefs’. These things are useful in their place but when being mindful it’s well to remember there are things in our awareness that don’t have names or forms. Grief, anxiety – they have ambiguity and take time to witness. Trying to quickly shoe-horn these things into a yes-or-no question rarely ends well.

I’ll be talking about this in my Thursday night meditation class, because when we meditate we can become focused in a hard, rigid way, and that defeats the purpose of opening and becoming aware.

Mindfulness often occurs in the corner of the mind’s eye; we spy a shape, we remember a noise, we feel a certain way. It’s indefinite and indeterminate but it’s suggestive and observable. So we sit quietly and let it reveal itself. Like a skillful bird watcher, rather than scaring the birds away by going to look for them he sits quietly and lets the birds present themselves in their own time.

So be careful with your intentions. Be skillful with what you ask of yourself. Deadlines and expectations can create a pressure that destroys the subtler mindfulness. We lose our peripheral vision and can only see the things we already know; we are frustrated before we start.

The Tibetan master knew what he was saying when he compared the delusions to naughty school boys. Delusions are not always terrible monsters. Sometimes they are errant kids who are good at heart, just a little out of control. The old meditation master is firm and kind with his monkey-like school children. In the same way, we are firm and kind with ourselves and our delusions.

It is always good practice to have a warm heart before you do or start anything. This is our powerful act of self love, and it protects us from hurting ourselves and others. Mindfulness practiced with the good heart of kindness always brings us to inner peace. Our awareness is soft, there is no judgement or anger, just a responding to the moment with acceptance and sensitivity.

Soft hands, warm heart

When you meditate, have soft hands and a warm heart.

Learning about Mindfulness meditation, it’s important not to mistake the instructions for the practice. “Being Mindful” isn’t entirely counting-breaths or doing ligament-stretching-yoga, although those things can indeed be jolly good fun. It’s useful to be aware of your attitude.

A bit of Zen advice on meditating is “soft hands, warm heart”. I’ll be using this expression in my class on Thursday 29 October in Maleny. It so beautifully conveys the attitude, the mental posture, that creates a mindful space. It’s a way of being focused that is healthy, a type of concentration that isn’t stressful.

Soft hands – we all know the difference between the feel of a hard hand and a soft one. Soft hands have an attentiveness, a sensitivity that makes the touch comfortable and safe.

And if you consciously allow you hands to become soft then the heart opens; your natural kindness activates, even if only dimly perceived. You feel better and you have more clarity: this is the feeling of the warm heart, and it is a good place to meditate from.

When you meditate, have soft hands and a warm heart.So when you sit to meditate ask yourself: what do my hands feel like? Gentle awareness itself will soften them up. Our hands become more sensitive, in their own time and over time. Do not hurry this, be with your hands as they experience softening.

Then we bring that same gentle awareness to the body, however limited it might feel. Our soft mental hands reassures the body and we become more still and reflective. And then the awareness of the body breathing can very easily take us deep into ourselves. Where does the breath end and where do I begin? It’s a blurry boundary. That bluriness is be a productive place to bring soft, gentle awareness. And simply be with what you become aware of. Experience the physical sensations, feel the emotional feelings, perceive mental thoughts; all with that gentle awareness, with those soft hands.

If we watch the breath with soft hands and a warm heart we will avoid many mistakes. With a warm heart it’s easier to avoid becoming judgemental or strongly opinionated on something, becoming lost in the maze of “should” and “must”. With soft hands we are sensitive so we keep being brought back to the feelings, the sensations, the thoughts that are happening right now. All of them happen before there is a story to explain them. Try and stay in that space before the story making begins.

And as we practice this way in mindfulness meditation the warmth of the warm heart naturally fills us up, like a cosy fire in a small house. It pervades your life outside of formal sitting and it becomes a bit easier to make it in the world, a bit easier to smile, a bit easier to see the things to be grateful for.

Stuck in the storm

Brisbane CBD about to get hit by the Supercell

Brisbane CBD about to get hit by the Supercell

It was absolutely bucketing down two weeks ago here in South East Queensland. We had days of rain and flash flooding. Nearby Caboolture got 330mm of rain in 12 hours.

This was a pain for two reasons:

Firstly: I’m taking care of animals who live outdoors so i have to go out and interact with them, consequently getting wet myself. Also the dogs walk mud in unless I laboriously wipe their bloody paws every time.

Secondly: on the day in question I was catching up with some class mates in Deception Bay (normally a short drive away) to do some course work. Even early in the morning there was a lot of water everywhere, including the road. The ocean was ALL choppy waves and grey skies. We finished our course work about 3.30pm. Drew headed off for work and I headed to Burpengary. “Be careful driving!” said Brooke, and I thought ‘yes must be careful on my quarter of an hour drive home. Drive slow and get under cover to enjoy the storm.’

Map of the Supercell. Red bit is the worst part. Guess where I was?

Map of the Supercell. Red bit is the worst part. Guess where I was?

What a drive. Over an hour I think; not sure, lost track of time. First thing to go wrong was the road I came in on now had a huge ‘detour’ sign barring my return. Bugger. Never been in Deception Bay before! Pulled over, checked Google maps and noticed my phone was under 10% power. Oh great, just when I might have an actual emergency going on my phone is about to die!

I found an alternate route and it was shared by every other car shunting along on the wet roads, trying to get out of here. Good conditions for an accident.

The roads were completely covered in water at points and  sometimes it was up to the axle of my little yellow car! “Please don’t break down!” I begged my 4-wheeled inanimate object. I used to read about people who drove into flooded roads and yes it’s dumb but actually being in a bastard of a storm I can see how it happens. Half the time I couldn’t tell how deep the water was; and I was desperate to get home. Somewhere warm, with food and my partner to tell my adventures to. I did NOT want to be stuck in my cold car, with nothing to eat and wet clothes to sit in. And the longer I stayed out in this rain the more water would be on the ground and on the roads, making being stranded a distinct possibility. Forge on, I decided, in lieu of any better idea. (I was right to be apprehensive about being stranded. Drew ended up “stuck in a petrol station somewhere, can’t get to work, can’t get home”!)

"It doesn't look THAT deep!"

“It doesn’t look THAT deep!”

I told myself that everything was fine just as I braked for some amber traffic lights – and the car just aquaplaned (ie “slid”) right through! It came to rest in the middle of the intersection as I held the steering wheel with white knuckles and made some strange whimpering noises.  I took a deep breath, pressed the accelerator and went off with a little fish tale wiggle. Lots of lightning, thunder, cars sploshing waves of water over my windscreen. I was simultaneously aware of what I had to do (“stay calm, focus on what’s in front of you, not too fast, KEEP GOING!”) as well as the adrenaline buzz of a nervous body.

There were more detours and all the roads still working were crammed. Tried to drive as close to the centre of the road to avoid the water on the edges. Except that meant i was closer to oncoming traffic in conditions that made a ‘wobble’ quite likely. Aaaah!

Waiting and watching the water rising...

Waiting and watching the water rising…

When I finally arrived at the street I was staying on, it wasn’t full of water or blocked by downed trees, which felt like a victory. The ditches either side of the road were absolutely full of water though, and I wondered how longer the road would be clear? Forge ahead! I made it to the driveway so happy to be alive and home that I really didn’t care about getting out of the car and getting wet to open the gate. Everything felt great, even patting the imbecile dogs as they stood there wagging their tails with their big vacant eyes. The alpacas were all crammed together underneath a shelter looking wretched, one or two dispiritedly chewing cud as they stared out on a world gone mad with water, thunder and lightning.

Kerry had the dogs inside and they were dry, which was good news for me. Towelling down two soaked dogs is hard work. Particularly Oliver, the sweet but IQ-challenged golden retreiver. Thunder is one of the few things that get through the Ollie-bubble. Normally he’s happily oblivious to most of his environment (with the exception of food) but with storms he gets wound up with lots of pacing around, whimpering and looking scared.

Oliver in a happier moment

Oliver in a happier moment

As i was sitting down on the lounge next to Kerry Oliver jumped up and sat beside me. First time he’s even tried that. He was obviously distressed so I cut him some slack and let him stay there. I leaned back into him just to give him some touch and connect to him through the fear. The pressure of my back leaning on him seemed to calm him a bit. I could feel his breath as his ribs pressed into my back, he was breathing fast and hard, poor bugger. Scared out of his wits. So we sat there, me lying back against him and his head on Kerry. He stayed there for a good 20 minutes. Even when the thunder cracked overhead he stayed still, so being able to wedge himself between me and the lounge seemed to help.

Apparently this one is the 'clever' dog.

Harry; apparently he’s the ‘clever’ one.

Harry – the adorable narcissist – was a contrast. Happy to be inside and sharing the room with some humans, he played on the floor with one of his toys and even fell asleep for a while. He had a whale of a time while poor old Ollie quivered on the lounge. It really is all in the mind…

We were going to watch some Babylon 5 DVDs until a big bolt of thunder reminded me to unplug everything. So we sat there, bereft of electronic distraction, and listened to the storm, leaning on a terrified Golden Retriever while a labradoodle played with his stuffed green fly.

Fresh Clear Eyes

meditation-buddha-statue-in-tulips-garden-under-the-bodhi-tree-panupong-roopyai

In Buddhist meditation there is a lot of formal practice, often tedious and frequently painful. In the same way an athlete will excercise so too does a Buddhist spend time on their cushion each day. The athlete trains so that at the time of their event they can perform well. I trained so that I could be aware of the process of the mind creating opinions, judgements, stories.

Why did I spend six years training to be aware of the process of the mind? So I could be free of the unhelpful habits of my mind that (according to Buddha) are the cause of all misery.

I’ve moved away from formal Buddhist meditation but the training is still there. And every now and then it kicks in spontaneously. I will be fuming with anger about someone and then I suddenly realise I am furious not because of them but because of an opinion I was holding onto about them. In the absence of that opinion I don’t have a problem. By seeing the process one can step outside it – if that’s what you choose. Not everyone wishes to.

Even the old decaying concrete walls and piles of rubbish looked fresh and new. I suppose that’s what happens when I have fresh, clear eyes.

The Ganga River in Rishikesh

The Ganga River in Rishikesh

 

So I was in Rishikesh, India, and having a moment by the Ganga River. There was water, sunlight, buildings, rocks. There was no script, no story. Just the river and sunshine and my breathing. And I was aware of this moment and accepting of it.

I’d stepped out of the usual mental process for a moment. The next step is to not be sucked back into that usual mental process by automatically filling that space. And a part of me wanted to fill the space, fill it by fixating on something – sensations, memories or plans, it almost doesn’t matter what. Possibilities arose – I could dwell on the mundane (my bum is sore, i should get up and walk); to the sensory (i could eat those mangoes in my bag, they’d taste delicious right now); to the sensual (I wonder if she’d go to bed with me?); to the transcendental (it would be so cool to be enlightened!).

And the automatic response is to choose an option and become immersed in the drama! To go with a thought and weave a whole vivid and compelling story about this imagined future! One story might be “If I walk where will I go? What will I do?”. Or how about some minor pride over my purchase of mangoes, encouraging myself what a seasoned traveller I am? Erotic daydreams are another great way to avoid investigating the mental process that I find so difficult to step out of. And of course speculating on enlightenment is an ancient method for avoiding the cost of attaining enlightenment.

The complicated process of creating a reality to struggle agains

The complicated process of creating a reality to struggle agains

But in that moment the busy chatter of the mind became another part of the moment, just like the river and the sunlight. All those hours of meditation sent practicing a habit coming to blossom in a moment of spontaneous letting go.

This was a moment when i observed the habit arising in the mind and i side stepped it – let it go. There was a vivid sense of something bustling and writhing, looking to feed itself, looking to grow. Like a virus, wanting to hijack my energy, control me.

In that moment it was possible to stop the mental-virus before it gained momentum. And the resulting space in the mind was open to having an experience: the sound of the river; the pattern of leaves against the sky; the feeling of warm, rough concrete against my back.

There was no need for words. There was no need to do anything. It was enough to experience without comment, without judgement, without reaction. The Ganga’s waters made patterns of green and white as the rafters bobbed over the rapids, falling up and down with crazy turbulence as the river roared on, vast and inhuman. I actually saw the river: it was pure energy expressing itself as water. The buildings on the opposite shore amidst the trees and bushes looked as if they had popped into existence in that moment. Everything looked as if it had just appeared. Even the old decaying concrete walls and piles of rubbish looked fresh and new. I suppose that’s what happens when I have fresh, clear eyes.

Space, the only frontier

Space, the only frontier

Space. When I made that decision to not go with the habit of the busy mind there was a lot of space – in the absence of mental clutter the mind has an openness that can welcome and enjoy anything.

I look up and hear Rishikesh. Vividly. See it, smell it. Scooters dodging cow shit and holy men dozing by the side of the road, their beards and dreadlocks intricate patterns of follicles. There are children playing on the river sands, their bright red and green clothes flash like parrots in flight as the kids cry out and chase each other, with the adults walking slowly along after them, barefoot and benign.

House sitting the alpacas

Sitting on houses is an ideal career choice for giant women

Sitting on houses is an ideal career choice for giant women

My partner and I are house sitters. We look after people’s places while they’re away, and often this includes looking after their animals. Usually a cat or a dog, occasionally some chickens. Once we had two horses. It’s usually reasonably laid back, with the odd neurotic terrier or high-maintenance feline making life interesting.

Our current house sit has two dogs, two cats and a dozen alpacas. It’s not near our home town Maleny, which is unusual for us; we like living in the hills. But it’s my sister’s place and so we’ve ventured “off the hill”. It seemed a good idea at the time. They’re off to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary Anzac thing and we mind their menagerie at their five acres in Burpengary.

An alpaca, similar to the ones we are minding

Reports of an alpaca free house sit proved to be misleading

Initially it was going to be an alpaca free event. The strange long-limbed ones would be shuffled off to a nice farm for the month and we’d just have two dog and two cats to look after.

Complications arose and it looked like there would be a few alpacas to mind. And then it was twelve of them, and two babies.Oh and one of them is sick. As in “might drop dead any moment” sick. And another one is pregnant. As in “was supposed to give birth two weeks ago” pregnant. Gosh, what fun.

Safe to say this has been the busiest house sit I’ve ever done. Getting up early (6am – early for me) to let the dogs out (they sleep inside on beds) and then feed the cats, feed the alpacas, move them to a paddock so they can eat grass all day. Back to feed the dogs and then eat my breakfast, before going back to the bed where my partner slumbers on to get some nice bed warmth. And then it’s going out again and attending to whatever four-legged one needs patting, feeding, letting out, letting in, or cleaning.

keep_calm_by_focusing_on_being_neurotic_dog_shirt-r50e34b1dc9994ff68790aa1f366e08f6_v9iub_8byvr_324The cats and dogs are used to lots of attention and being treated as little people. I don’t treat animals as little people, I find it makes me and the animal a bit neurotic. So the furry ones are slowly coming to grips with the fact they aren’t hearing baby speak all day and may go for an hour without being caressed. Some are coping better than others. The male cat seems to be in a state of denial about being so under appreciated. The female cat has come out of her shell over the last few days. Never seen her so affectionate – maybe she likes being treated like a cat?

The dogs have varied experiences too. One is Harry a very cute labradoodle who is neurotic and doesn’t seem to cope with change very well. He spends a lot of time staring out the window waiting for his owner to come back. He’s eating though, so it can’t be too bad. The other dog is Oliver, a golden retriever who is very sweet and quite possibly the dumbest dog I’ve ever met. I’ve found him a few times just standing and staring at walls, eyes unfocused. I call it ‘Standby mode’, and Oliver’s there a lot. He has two loves, food and sleep. Doesn’t like being outside for more than 10 minutes, prefers the lounge to the great outdoors. If there was an Olympics for sleeping and general doggy inertia Oliver would win gold.

But there’s more than mentally unstable pets and medically-critical farm animals. The big thrill yesterday was chasing a blind alpaca around a paddock. Yep, they have a blind alpaca. Blind since birth. They call her Stevie Wander as she frequently gets lost in the acre paddocks and someone has to bring her back. Which – as of now – is me.

What if she gets away?

What if the blind alpaca gets away?

So there i was, in the paddock and clapping my hands which I’m told should attract her, like a homing signal. “Clap and call her name,” they said. So I did. Stevie heard my clapping, made sure she knew where i was – and then ran in the opposite direction. Did this flamboyant little jump and then sprinted off. I chased and prayed and shouted for a while and she just ran away from me. All my superior intelligence mattered didley squat. I finally conceded the battle and drooped back to home to enlist reinforcements and prepare for a fresh attempt.

My partner Kerry had her first taste of alpaca wrangling as we came back to herd Stevie into a corner of the paddock. “Herd” may not be the right word – “run around and say encouraging things and hope the bloody animal goes the way i want it to” is probably more accurate.  Finally I tiptoed up close and then seized her neck in the time-honoured ‘arm-around-the-neck’ alpaca controlling motion.

I do feel a little bit for Stevie Wander. Her life experience is of strange noises and frequently being seized by invisible hands. What a life! When I seized her she bucked and reared but there was no way I was letting go. Seeing an alpaca in an acre paddock running away from you must be one of the most dispiriting things possible, and it was getting dark too. Possible heart break right there.

So I’m holding a startled alpaca who’s leaping around manically but i managed to hook her neck and hold her still, stroking her neck and telling her it was alright as I slipped the halter over her snout and around the back of my head. I felt an immense relief and an adrenaline high.

This is what a haltered alpaca looks like. What a relief!

We walked her back to the night paddock where she could join her fellow bovine quadrepeds in munching hay as the sun went down. As I took the halter off she leapt away and then stopped, shook herself and casually trotted off. To me it was a big deal. To her, it was just another day of random grapplings and strange noises.

Then off to feed the dogs and cats and make our dinner. Life on the land!

Awareness: the path out of suffering

Prem Baba teaching

There was a Brazilian teacher in Rishikesh in 2013 whose name was Prem Baba and he was giving free talks at a large ashram on the banks of the Ganga River. He was talking about Awareness as his main practice. He said Presence was the goal – “truly being awake right now, not lost in some fantasy of the past or the future.” The room he taught in was light and airy, with over 100 devotees from all over the world listening to him speak Portugese or listening to the translator’s English words.

He said the main obstacle to Awareness was Inner Dialogue, the mental chatter. This comes from the unconscious wishes and fears clashing with the conscious ones.

“We can say ‘yes’ as often as we like, but if our unconscious is saying ‘no’ then nothing will change.”

He said the remedy was to take responsibility for the suffering and abandon the stance of being the victim. This is not the attitude of ‘this is my fault’ (which is still victim thinking) but rather ‘this is my opportunity for freedom’. My freedom is my responsibility – because who else can free me from suffering?

ridding_ourselves_of_anger_OM_Times

Anger isolates me from being Present

“So I try to be simply Aware of what is happening, without blaming anything or anyone.  Without blame there is no sense of injustice, no taste of bitterness or resentment.”

For instance, perhaps there is anger; be with that anger without identifying with the anger. Even if only for a few moments; this is being the witness, not the victim. If the justification for being angry arise try and witness that too. Be Aware of what is going on without believing any of it. If we don’t feed these sparks of madness they don’t become flames.

“Similarly, be  with the inadequacy, the betrayal, the hunger, the despair. Accept their presence rather than look to assign guilt for their existence. Resist the habit of putting toxins in your mental environment! This is the moment by moment process of liberation.”

By witnessing – by being Aware – we see more and more what the real nature of these painful minds are. Before I avoided them by weaving a fantasy of blame: blaming myself, my family, my friends, society, God, the devil… an endless process of avoiding taking responsibility.

I am Happy

“I am happy in my soap opera! Leave me alone!”

Now by accepting and being present – being aware – the nature of my pain becomes clear. I slowly bring what is unconscious into the light. And this awareness itself naturally leads to letting go.

It’s a moment of discovery of a world I am usually oblivious to because it’s so often drowned out by my internal soap opera. I am left with the simple reality of what I am actually  experiencing, the unadorned and naked moment. The sounds i was too engrossed in ego to hear; the colour and pattern of the curtain in my room; the feel of water on my skin; the taste of a cup of tea.

Presence gives everything a feeling of sacredness.

Pale headed rosella, late summer 2014

It was the yellow I saw first. A yellow-headed bird. He had his back to us, and his shoulders and the back of his head were this startling yellow. A bright butter yellow on this dull, wet morning. The night’s rain hadn’t exhausted the clouds, and they drifted around the trees and houses as mist, making everything subdued, flatter, slower. The moist air was chilly; almost startling after the heat of the last few days.

A typical Pale Headed Rosella from behind

We were out the back of the house we were sitting, sharing a cup of tea on the little garden bench under the eaves. The backyard fell away down the slope and the low, misty clouds flowed around the trees and over the lawns. Suddenly my partner pointed to this vividly coloured parrot perched a few metres away that neither one of us had noticed. He’d been there when we came out and only after we’d started to relax did he become apparent. A parrot with a yellow head and shoulders and a lower half of deep dark blue. Like someone had draped a silk hood of shimmering yellow over a jacket of dark blue feathers. We started talking about what sort of photo we could take. You wanted to include the lawn’s generous harvest of dandelions, the little yellow starbursts waving in a sea of grass leaves. I was keener on a good zoom lens shot.

As the conversation meandered we intermittently admired the parrot as he perched there on the fence, flamboyant and watchful. Suddenly there was a neat stretch of wing-feathers and we saw a flash of more colours. Then the parrot stretched his other wing; a smooth snap of feathers that happened in a blink. “Was there some red there?” my partner wondered.

Side view of the Pale Headed Rosella

Side view of the Pale Headed Rosella

The parrot abrubtly turned around, pirouetting in a moment. Before the small bird had been tantalising us, looking over his shoulder. Now, here he was in all his glory: his face was pale yellow, and his breast and waistcoat and outside wings were lapus lazuli, shot through with a royal dark blue. And behind his legs, the underside of his  tail was a dark red, unexpectedly vivid against the blue. “He’s got three colours!” we exclaimed, delighted at this splendid fellow’s display on this chilly Maleny morning. And he perched and watched and waited, as birds do on cold mornings, hoping for something other than wet and cold to appear.

Then he shifted and for a moment he was like a swimmer on the starting block, poised and intent. And then bang! the wings flare out, the legs straighten and this bundle of feathered colour leaps into a beautiful blurred arc that takes him to a higher perch in a nearby pine tree. We look up at him now, as he surveys and preens. Our conversation meanders on until at one point we notice he is gone. Now there’s just the fence and the countless yellow dandelions in the drizzle, and the houses across the small gully are disappearing behind the waves of mist.