Mindfulness, relaxation and mental t’ai chi

Mindfulness is, in essence, nothing more complicated that relaxing the mind. But first, take a moment now to relax a part of the body, maybe an arm or a leg.
What was the process you went through to do that?

Initially, I imagine you turned your attention towards your arm or leg; you then, perhaps, became more aware of the sensations in that part of the body; and then the critical action to relax would have been some kind of release and letting go, maybe preceded by a tensing of the muscles to exaggerate that feeling of release.

Mindfulness is more or less the same process of relaxation but focussed on the mind rather than the body. The similarities are so strong that by just relaxing the body, for example with a body scan, we can find that we have also ended up with a much more relaxed mind.

Relaxing the body isn’t always an easy, instant and straightforward thing to do. If there is agitation, pain or restlessness in the body then it will take more time to initiate a state of relaxation. Relaxation of the mind can seem to be more difficult to achieve than relaxing the body because our minds are often in such a state of habitual restless agitation.

Relaxation of the mind therefore takes time and requires patience, and because we don’t always get results as quickly as we would expect or hope for, we can be tempted to think the relaxation process, that seems to work well for the body, isn’t going to work for the mind. We can then give up and abandon the simple approach of relaxation and search instead for a more sophisticated, complicated or esoteric system of meditation or spiritual practise, or decide that true lasting mental relaxation is only for a special few monks and gurus and just not a realistic goal for someone leading a busy life.

The challenge of relaxing the mind is to be patient and allow time for the effects to slowly percolate into our inner experience. Mindfulness starts the instant we have the intent to be more aware in the present moment, but the effects of relaxation that this brings can take much longer.

At the beginning of a mindfulness session it can be quite frustrating as we see how much our mind wanders, but by the end, more often that not, we are experiencing the mental relaxation that mindfulness brings. So at the start of a session be particularly patient and don’t expect immediate results; surrender to the fact that a good portion of time at the beginning may well be just noticing how much our mind is wandering. This is not wasting time, or doing it wrong; it is a necessary part of the process of gradually and gently allowing the relaxation response to manifest in the mind.

And remember, having no thoughts is never the aim of mindfulness. Relaxation and stillness are not synonymous; we can be tense or relaxed when we are still and we we can be tense or relaxed in motion. To be relaxed mentally does not require us to be still or silent in the mind, just as physical relaxation doesn’t require us to be perfectly immobile.

T’ai chi is mindful, aware and attentive movement. Muscles are engaged that are needed to produce the movement but the rest of the body is relaxed and the movement is graceful and flowing; a sense of poise and effortless accompanies the movement. So too with our thoughts within a mindful state: the movement of thought is still welcome and with awareness and attention of these thoughts, they too can become graceful and flowing and take place within a mind that is relaxed and at ease.

So be patient with the mind, relaxation will come and it will come through the simple practise of mindfulness. Don’t expect quick results and don’t try to empty, quiet nor still the mind. Be attentive to your thoughts, welcome them, allow them to flow and in time, notice how the quality of your thoughts gradually changes and becomes more graceful, more effortless, more creative and enjoy the flowing movement of your thoughts through a relaxed and contented mind.

The foreground and the background of mindfulness

During a mindfulness meditation we bring our attention to a variety of things: thoughts, sounds, the breath, sensations in the body, emotions. We hold these things in the foreground of our awareness. It is important during mindfulness practise to not create a tension between what we are holding in the foreground of our attention and everything else that is happening. The idea of allowing all other activity, internal and external, to be there in the background is a useful one; we do not try to exclude, for example, sounds from our awareness whilst we try to focus on our breath. To do so would be counterproductive in that it would add tension to the mind rather than be relaxing, and it would be an attempt to deny the present moment by trying to exclude part of it from our awareness; mindfulness is about embracing the present and all that is occurring from moment to moment.
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Don’t make your thoughts the enemy

One of the most commonly expressed frustrations when practising mindfulness meditation is that ‘I couldn’t control my thoughts’. Thoughts are not the problem; our thoughts only feel like a problem when we are in a non-relaxed  state of being. When we do enter into a state of mindfulness our thoughts don’t disappear, nor do we suddenly enter a state whereby we consciously control our every thought. In a relaxed meditative state our thoughts are still there and they still arise spontaneously but they feel different, they are of a different quality; thoughts that arise from mindfulness tend to be more creative, clearer and more positive. Read this blog

Mindfulness meditation and lucid dreaming

“When you understand what attention is, not only during waking hours but also during sleep, then the whole of the mind is totally awake.” J Krisnamurti

I periodically have lucid dreams where I can become aware that I am in a dream and I can therefore take control of the experience and choose what to do, which is usually to start flying. I’ve noticed that the trigger in the dream that leads to lucidity is often that I look at my hand; this is quite a common technique used to induce a lucid dream. Another method is to do a series of ‘reality checks’ throughout the day and it has struck me that this is very similar to practising mindfulness. Continue reading

Autonomic Thoughts

The autonomic nervous system in the body is responsible for all the automatic functions of the body such as the beating of the heart and the process of digestion. We don’t have to make these things happen, they just happen automatically and regulate themselves depending on various internal and external factors.

Breathing is another example of an autonomic function. We do not have to remember to breathe. Even if we try to deliberately hold our breath, the autonomic nervous system will do everything it can to force the body to breathe. Despite this ability to override our will, the breath is an example of an autonomic bodily function that we can easily choose to consciously influence. I can, right now, decide to take a deeper breath for example. So how I am breathing right now is an interplay between the automatic systems of the body and my conscious will.

This may be why the breath is so often a focus of meditation and mindfulness. We consciously connect with something that we could affect, but then choose to allow it to continue just as it is. This is the essence of the meditative approach. We become more aware and attentive to whatever is happening but choose not to try and change it; instead we watch, observe, allow and let go.

My initial assumption would be that our thoughts are not autonomic. If there is one area of our experience that relies entirely on our conscious choice and will for it to happen then surely that would be our own thoughts. However, through the practice of mindfulness of thought, my experience is that thoughts are more like the breath.
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Autonomic Emotions

Just as the body has autonomic functions – processes, such as our heartbeat and our breathing, that occur automatically independently of our conscious will – we can see our thoughts in a similar way; this was discussed in a previous post. What about our emotions?  How often would you say you consciously choose your emotions and how often do your emotions seem to be happening to you? Autonomic processes are not immune to conscious will – we can actively slow our heart rate and change the pattern of our breathing – so the fact that we can affect our emotions doesn’t mean that we are always consciously choosing and creating them.

Is there benefit in seeing our experienced emotions as being largely autonomic, as being primarily an automatic response to a variety of factors outside of our control? Firstly, it can remove feelings of guilt or failure if I am experiencing negative emotions; it can also remove feelings of ego, pride or arrogance is I am experiencing positive emotions. I am not to blame for my negative emotions, nor am I necessarily responsible for all my positive emotions. If my emotional experiences are predominantly caused by a combination of environment, circumstance, genetics, biochemistry, hormones, past experiences and current relationships, then it may be more productive if I focus my attention on how I respond to these emotions, rather than expend energy battling against their occurrence and trying to generate alternative emotions in their place.

This is not an argument for disempowerment and acceptance of your lot; it is a suggestion of what may be a more effective approach to reach a state where negative emotions have much less impact on us and our ability to function.

It is possible, although not easy, to have the will power to function positively and effectively when we are suffering from physical discomfort or from a stream of negative thoughts, we can learn to largely ignore it and carry on regardless, but is it feasible to do the same when we are experiencing negative emotions? Emotions can feel a lot more consuming of our whole being and a lot more powerful in how they influence our whole demeanour, generating a momentum of similarly negative thoughts and reactions. Can we transcend this so we are not struggling to get by whilst the suffering continues, but instead we find ourselves Ina different space where the suffering is greatly diminished?

If emotions, like processes of the body (and maybe our thoughts) are autonomic, then that opens the door to the possibility that our conscious will and awareness can transcend the experience of our emotions, and from that position, create new feelings and responses that allow us to function and interact in a productive way even whilst the negative emotions are present, without feeling such a detrimental impact from those emotions.

Mindful acceptance and awareness of our inevitable negative emotional states may be the first step to finding an inner strength and determination to express ourselves from a place beyond them. We are more than the autonomic processes of our bodies, thoughts and emotions; we are able to be aware of all of these things, and that awareness also has the power to create new and free thoughts and feelings that can be the inspiration for our future actions and experiences.

So I can experiment with this during the day: when I am feeling down, I can notice and name that experience, and then see if there is a part of me that remains unaffected that can generate a new thought, a new feeling and an expression unaffected by the emotion, that reflects the core of my being.

Is this possible? There’s only one way to find out …

How big is your mind?

Of course your mind doesn’t really have a size because it’s not a physical thing. However we can assume a size for the mind, and that assumption can affect our experience. There is a tendency to equate the mind with the brain and our thoughts with activity in the brain. There is of course a correlation there, but that is very different from saying they are the same thing. (This mini talk won’t go into theories of consciousness, but if you are interested see part 5 of the meditation course.)

So we tend to assume that the size of the mind is the size of our head, our skull, our brain. This assumption can lead us to think of all our thoughts as happening inside our head, inside that small space occupied by our brain. That can leave our heads feeling quite crowded, busy and stressful.

We can change this assumption, quite naturally and easily, if we simply think of the brain inside our head as not being the container of our thoughts but being the receiver and transmitter of thoughts. Just as a radio receives signals and transmits sounds, our brain receives ideas and feeling and transmits thoughts and emotions. The signals and sounds of a radio are not inside the radio; the signals are all around us and the sound can emit across a large space. So too with our brain: thoughts and feelings are outside of us in the environment surrounding us, we pick up on them, we sense them and receive them; and we emit our own sounds, our own thoughts and emotions emanate back out into the environment.

So give yourself more space, more inner space. Assume, imagine or feel that your mind is the size of the room you are in. Allow all your thoughts and feelings to flow out into the space of the room. Feel the sense of inner freedom that this brings, the easing  of tension and stress as we open up and give our mind more room to breathe. It can feel like stepping out of a crowded stuffy and noisy train into the fresh air of the open countryside.

And no need to stop at the size of the room, allow your mind to be as big as your awareness and imagination can go, out to the horizon, across the open sky, into unlimited space.

So how big is your mind? It is as vast, open and spacious as you want it to be.

Why trying to stop your thoughts doesn’t work

If you have ever tried meditating, you will probably be familiar with the experience of battling with your thoughts. If there is one thing above all else that seems to stand between us and our desired meditation experience it is our lack of ability to control our thoughts.

When we try to control our thoughts we do so with our conscious intent. Success would be possible with this method if it was our conscious intent that we were using to create the thoughts that we want to now control.  For most of our thoughts, most of the time, that isn’t the case; we do not often use oir conscious intent to create thoughts. If you watch your mind now, you will probably notice that thoughts arise all by themselves without any effort made on your part to create them. It seems that our thoughts generally happen to us, they are not willed into existence by our conscious intent.

If this is true, then it is not surprising that consciously intending to stop thinking doesn’t work. To affect our thoughts we need to address their cause and conscious intent isn’t it so we need to look elsewhere.

So firstly, let go of any conscious intent to affect your thoughts in anyway. And then …. and then nothing, that’s it. We all want methods and systems to follow and practise, but here there isn’t one. So sit back, relax and watch your thoughts arise and do absolutely nothing about it, but wait and see what happens, without expectations.

Maximising mindful mental activity

There can be an assumption that a mindful mind is a mind of simple, minimal, quiet, slow and low impact activity; this need not be the case at all. Mindfulness brings great space, freedom and energy to the mind so that mental activity can become intensified, maximised, energised and optimised in new, positive, creative and inspiring ways. The increased awareness and attention of mindfulness meditation brings insights, realisations and new perspectives and attitudes to our way of thinking. Mindfulness leads to dynamic, creative, productive and constructive thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness meditation is so much more than relaxing the mind and body; it is about refreshing, revitalising and reinvigorating all aspects of our being, including our mind and thoughts.

Neither this nor that

Mindfulness is often described as not doing but being, about awareness not action. But then it is also described as not being about stopping your actions such as your thoughts nor blocking out any of your senses. So it is not about stopping your thoughts from doing whatever they are doing nor about stopping anything from happening in your environment. So mindfulness is about being not doing but also about allowing doing to be. Mindfulness is about awareness not action but it is also about allowing actions to happen within our awareness. Continue reading

Three levels of presence

1. Be present with your immediate internal environment. Connect with how you feel – physically, mentally and emotionally – right now, without analysis, naming nor judgement. Welcome and appreciate how you feel, accept it all unconditionally within your awareness.

2. Be present with your immediate external environment. Connect with your five senses and be aware of exactly where you are right now, without analysis, naming nor judgement. Welcome and appreciate what you perceive, hold it all lightly in your awareness.

3. Who is it that is aware of your environment through your senses? Who is it that is aware of your thoughts, emotions and feelings? It is your present self. The present self is not your personal history, it is not your particular circumstances, it is not your thoughts of past experiences nor future plans. Your present self is the awareness, consciousness and aliveness that is right here, right now. Be aware of your awareness. Be conscious that you are conscious. Welcome and appreciate your aliveness.

Don’t try to fit in

Don’t try to fit in to a practice, method, group or teaching. Discover what works for you and do that. Inform your discovery and decisions with evidence garnered from your own direct experience. Learn from others, but in the end trust yourself.

Don’t try and fit yourself into a system, that would be a violent act against yourself.

Find a teacher who has a personality match for you and a presentation style you enjoy – it, in itself has no significance to the substance of the teaching, however it allows the transmission to occur as we welcome and allow the influence of people we like.

So find that combination of likability and a reasonable, workable theory and start learning. Don’t waste time looking for The Truth; don’t waste time trying to force yourself into a teaching or practise that you don’t like.

Knowingly follow your ego’s preferences to find a teacher and practise that will make learning easy and enjoyable for you; don’t add another obstacle to your learning by battling against the ego with a teaching it doesn’t like.

Do what works for you at this moment and drop it immediately when it stops working for you and find the next thing that you need to keep moving forward.

You are the only relevant factor to consider when finding the right approach for your spiritual growth. To try and fit yourself in to one particular limited methodology or belief system is only ever going to be counter productive.

The mindfulness contradiction 

There is a contradiction inherent at the heart of mindfulness: it is, by design, a practice of meditation that has been deliberately stripped of all theology and religious trappings (except the bells, for some reason mindfulness wasn’t able to let go of the bells), and yet the actual experience of mindfulness is the exact same experience the religious meditators have.

So, whereas the meditator in their religious community has all the theory, back story, tradition, context and vocabulary they need to process, assimilate and come to terms with the spiritual experiences that arise from their practice, the secular mindfulness practitioner has nothing, other than to say they are aware of the present moment.

So do we, as non-religious folk, say nothing about our profound experiences of mindfulness? Do we borrow the least religious descriptors we can find from the ‘New Age’ spiritual movement? Do we co-opt some seemingly relevant terminology from science that we don’t really completely understand? Or do we risk denying and limiting the depth and profundity of the mindfulness experience by restricting ourselves to the language of the mundane?

Whole concept thinking 

Having spent a long time over the years paying close attention to my thoughts during many hours of mindfulness practice, I have noticed that it is possible to be aware of thoughts on a level before they are expressed as word-like thoughts, that is before they manifest as an inner dialogue of sentences. Awareness of the process of thought has led to a realisation that thoughts first arise as whole concepts, as complete ideas, knowable instanteouly. It is only later that the linear string of thoughts emerging over time is experienced in the mind. When this awareness of whole concept thinking has been established it is then possible to keep the thoughts at this stage and not continue to the inner dialogues. This gives the mind a lot more space and time, freeing it of the clutter of an inner dialogue; concepts arise and are instantly knowable without any time needed to express these whole ideas in a paragraph of internalised sentences.

The illusion of now

What we think of as the present moment, isn’t really that at all. When we practise mindfulness and become aware of our thoughts and feelings, sensations in the body and the breath, aware of the environment around through our senses, we assume we are perceivnging the present moment. But actually what we are experiencing is the recent past. Our perceptions are always of what has already happened as the brain needs time to process themdatanwemreceive and to roesent a coherent picture. The brain, for east ole, processes sight and sound and then synchronises them so we experience them as happening simultaneously even though data of sight arrives faster than that of sound. So every experience is a constructed experience, an approximation and interpretation of the actual present moment that has always already past.

With the realisation of this, we can change of approach to our experience and see it as the recent past. This allows us the opportunity to be open to experience something else, something new. We are then free to directly experi nice the actual oresent moment that is something beyond all sensory data, beyond all sensations of the body and all thoughts. We are then in touch with the actual now that is something new and beyond any experience of what we had assumed was present moment awareness.

So be aware of everything that is happening internally and externally. See it for what it really is, the recent past. And be open and look forward from this to the ever new and unmanifest actual now of the real present moment, beyond thought and beyond the senses; a direct experience of timeless presence and unlimited consciousness.