Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Going mindfully wild in the forests of Hampshire

This weekend my girlfriend, Jo, and I went camping in a forest down in Hampshire, right next to the beautiful South Downs Way near the New Forest. It's a privately owned forest that our friend Sean manages and uses for woodland skills course and mindfulness retreats.

Our campsite

There're loads of things I could write about - like our dandelion coffee making adventure (see below for some pics) - but since this is a blog about finding your inner universe I'm going to write about dirty fingers!

Ever since I was little I've had a thing about getting dirty fingers. My mum will tell you, when I was around 5 I insisted on eating my jam sandwiches with a knife and fork for fear of getting jam on my fingers... And to this day eating pizza with my hands takes some mental effort (not to mention going to an Ethiopian restaurant).

So spending a couple of days in the forest without a shower or running water was always going to bring up some issues.

On the first night it rained heavily, so we spend the morning searching out dry (or just less wet) wood for the camp fire. The rain made the dead wood slimy with forest gunk, so you can imagine what my hands looked like after dragging back the branches and breaking them up for the fire... My mood worsened as I tried not to get more gunk on my jacket or trousers. I was snapping at Jo and all humour had left me.

Now this is always an important sign! The lack of seeing any humour or the funny side tells you that you've got into a bad mood. "Are you breathing in the hara?", Jo asked. Grrr...

Well, ok, no I wasn't. Hara is the Japanese term for your belly, or your being's energy centre/battery pack. It's synonymous with the Chinese/Taoist lower dantian or the yogic swadhisthana chakra. When you meet someone with a strong hara you can feel it immediately - very grounded, solid and stable. And when you're relaxed you naturally breathe in your belly. Conversely, consciously breathing in your belly/hara (diaphragmatic breathing) stimulates your para-sympathetic nervous system and causes you to relax. It has all sorts of beneficial effects, as any singer, Tai-Chi or Aikido practitioner will tell you.

So I softened my belly and let my breathing relax naturally downwards. I did what I could to let go of the resistance to getting dirty and start enjoying the sensual feeling of the slime and mud on my fingers. I rolled up my coat sleeves and had a good laugh with Jo about the ridiculous states you can wind yourself up into.

From then on (until we got back home to our sink, bar of soap and nail brush) I just let my hands be dirty. It's only natural, organic forest gunk.

Ok, I did scrub pretty hard when I got home, but step-by-step...

Dandelion root "coffee"

The enormous root Jo found Cleaning it with a sprig
of antiseptic pine
Frying and crushing the
chopped up root
A lovely steaming cup of dandelion "coffee"
See here for some interesting facts about the common dandelion

Forest work

Sean tasked us with clearing some log debris from an ancient stone-age burial mound in the forest. Another opportunity to get dirty fingers...

Clearing the log debris from the tumulous
The stone-age tumulous (burial mound)

Thursday, 22 August 2013

David Mitchell's living in the moment

Someone sent me a link a while back to an episode of David Mitchell's Soapbox (on the Guardian) called 'Living in the moment' (watch it here). True to his reputation it's wonderfully provocative! I thought, given my upcoming courses in mindfulness, it might be good to have a little look at what he's saying.

He starts off boldly: "It's no longer good enough to live in a way that you're happy with and doesn't enrage others. No. We're now supposed to live in the moment. It's not enough to work towards being happy later, you have to be happy now. Right now! Not soon, but now." Then he steps back a little and adds "OK, maybe not all the living-in-the-momenteers are saying that's the only way of being happy"... "They're recommending this as a way to become happy. Are they mad?"

As I said, provocative! I guess I can count myself as a living-in-the-momenteer. Am I saying that? Well, yes.

He goes on to describe why he thinks we're mad. And this is where he gets a bit confused about what it means to 'live in the moment'. "The ranges of pleasures", he says, "to someone living in the moment is both small and bestial. Unless you're in the middle of something delicious, intoxicating, carnal, or having a sneeze, you're stuck. And the only one that doesn't involve any forethought at all is sneezing...".

Here, I think is the crux of the matter. Can you plan for the future whilst living in the moment? As I see it, it's all to do with how you approach things. You can make plans whist fully being in the present moment.

Let's take dinner tonight as an example.

Approach 1: I anticipate I will feel hungry. I predict I'm going to want to eat lasagne but I know I don't have all the things in my kitchen that I'll need to cook it. I make a list of what I need and plan which shop(s) I'll go to. I get home and start cooking, all the time worrying whether it'll turn out ok, whether I've got the bechamel sauce the right consistency, etc. I finally sit down to eat the lasagne, fantasising about how tasty it's going to be. I start eating, enjoy it for about 5 seconds, then start replaying in my head a conversation I had with someone earlier, planning how I'm going to advertise my yoga classes better, etc. I think about how I might improve the lasagne next time, how much washing up my cooking has generated, or what I might have for dessert. Afterwards I might think back and remember how nice the lasagne was.

Approach 2: I recognise the beginnings of hunger sensations in my belly. The thought of lasagne naturally pops into my mind. I check the kitchen to see if I have everything I need, and appreciate the lovely spice smell that comes out of the cupboard above the toaster. I make a shopping list noticing how the ball of the biro I'm using is all gunked up and smudging on the paper. I leave the house and walk to the shops; the sun warms my face and I feel the weight of my feet as they step step on the pavement, the awkwardness of the shopping bags as they bang against my legs. I get home and start cooking with my mind focussed on the present moment sensations in the act of cooking. I'm in the flow - so engrossed in the task that there is nothing else. The rest of the world disappears. I sit down to eat the lasagne, absorbed in the beautiful flavours, textures and smell of the food. There are no thoughts, simply the awareness of the present - whatever is going on.

Which approach do we take most days?

This quality of flow deserves a moment to think about. It's a fairly elusive state. As with sleep, you can't just will yourself into it - all you can do is create the right conditions and let it happen. Like trailing your hand in the cool water of a stream, it's very pleasant but as soon as you try to grasp it you come up with nothing. It also embodies an apparent paradox: how can I be living in the moment if I'm not even aware of the moment? David Mitchell highlights this as a weakness of mindfulness practice. However, spiritual practice is full of apparent paradoxes. When you're in that flow, does the paradox still exist?

"But what about anticipated pleasure?" David Mitchell asks. He gives the example of watching the 2001 film Mulholland Drive, "believing he was enjoying watching the film and anticipating an ending that would resolve and make sense of the mystery". However, because there was no such ending he said he was forced to "retrospectively downgrade what he thought had been his enjoyment in the moment." This made me chuckle!

Another example he gave was sport. The games you enjoy most at the time, he suggested, are the "ones where the teams or people you're rooting for go into the lead early and stay there until they win." But in hindsight, the ones you enjoy most are "where it's touch and go for the whole game then they win." He explains that his dominant emotion at the time of watching is "I really hope they win so it will turn out later that I'm enjoying myself now".

But all this hinges on the attachment to an outcome, and this is the fatal mistake we all make time and time again. Is enjoyment only to be derived from a win? If you're trapped in thoughts of the future we forget to experience (let alone enjoy) what's happening right now. Aren't there enjoyable moments in a game regardless of who's winning? And why on earth would you "retrospectively downgrade" your enjoyment of a film just because it didn't end in a way you wanted it to?! That is mad! Ironically, letting go of what you want is the only way to find the benefits of mindfulness.

David Mitchell ends by concluding that "all enjoyment is a variation on a theme, which is chores now for jam tomorrow." Nice one-liner! But I'd say the essence of mindfulness is really to be present with your chores. Enjoy them, savour the smell of freshly laundered clothes, the gliding motion of the iron, let yourself disappear into the rhythmic backwards and forwards of the cleaning cloth in the bath. Don't worry about the jam - it might or might not come. But doesn't the wonder of how the water flows over the colourfully dirty dishes outweigh any potential future possibility of jam?

For some great further reading, have a look at this lovely article in Psychology Today The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment

Or this article in the Guardian Living in the moment really does make people happier

(or sign up to one of my courses on mindfulness!

David Mitchell's Soapbox logo

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Laughter yoga

I was at the Gaunts House Summer Gathering at the weekend down in Dorset. It's a hippie festival that's been going for a few decades, and true enough there was plenty of hair and tie dyed clothes. I was there as part of the ZenWays team manning the 24hr meditation tent. You'd never catch me at a hippie festival otherwise... ;-) We were taking it in shifts to meditate and be available to lead guided meditations for anyone who wanted to join us over the whole period of the festival (see picture below). Among the perks we got for volunteering was free entry to the festival and therefore to all the classes and workshops.
One of the classes I went to was on laughter yoga (Hasyayoga) led by Paul Reeves (pictured right). Ever heard of it?

The practice is based on the work of Dr. Madan Kataria from Mumbai (popularly known as the ‘Guru of Giggling’) who came up with Laughter Yoga in the 90s.

On the serious side, it's known to have medically beneficial effects to cardiovasular health and mood, and thought also to help treat or reduce risk factors for allergies and asthma, arthritis, diabetes and a few other things (the science of laughter is no laughing matter...). But hey, whatever the literature says, it's just great fun!! It certainly lifted my mood, made my sides and diaphragm ache, my cheeks hurt, and I made far more close eye contact with strangers than is socially acceptable otherwise.

Rather perversely, laughter yoga practice doesn't involve any specific humour or comedy - although it quickly turns very humorous. So how do we start laughing without a seed joke? Paul insisted that, if you need to, "just fake it 'till you make it". Once you start, the fake laugh quickly becomes very genuine! Wikipedia says that "laughter yoga is the only technique that allows adults to achieve sustained hearty laughter without involving cognitive thought." Does all other laughter require cognitive thought? Maybe it does... In any case, this is the yoga part - letting go of cognitive thought, letting go of inhibitions, being in the moment.

He showed us an exercise to get us laughing if we simply couldn't get going. Imagine you're in a car, one hand on the steering wheel, one on the key in the ignition. Turn the key. Make the noise, go on... eh eh eh eh ha ha he he hum, vroom, ha ha ha!! LOL. Drive around on the power of your laughter. It's ridiculous. But it's got us started, right!!

He he, ha ha ha. He he, ha ha ha.

Another lovely (perhaps more serious) exercise we did was chakra laughing. Bear with me... We started by bringing our attention to our muladhara (root/base) chakra in our perineum and laughing a low ho ho in the belly. Then we gradually worked our way upwards. At swadhisthana (belly) we did a deep Father Christmas laugh (not too hard to imagine since Paul looks like Father Christmas himself! - or Gandalf). With our awareness at at the solar plexus (manipura) we did a slightly higher pitched ha ha ha, at the heart (anahata) a higher ha ha ha, at the throat (vishuddha) a high he he he, then at the 3rd eye a high pitched squeaky squawk laugh. Finally, visualising the crown chakra (sahasrara) we laughed silently (with, by now, a bit of a wheeze). Great stuff!

Doing this made me think of what your characteristic laugh says about you - does it betray where you are in their body, where you're blocked, or what your spiritual state is? Does it very from time-to-time, day-to-day?

Finally we finished in a group hug circle (very in-keeping with the hippie festival feel...) and laughed to each other. Wow, I was surprised, the energy generated in the space within the circle was almost tangible.

Highly recommended! Give it a go if you ever get the chance. You might have a laugh (sorry, had to).

ZenWays meditation tent at the Gaunts House Summer Gathering

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The crucible

3-day intensive Zen retreat at Gaunts House 1-3rd August 2013 with Daizan Roshi

The crucible: an unassuming first floor meeting room in the east wing of the grand old Gaunts House. 20 people sit face-to-face, knee-to-knee. Some because they're searching for a solution, some because they've caught a glimpse and want to see more, some by accident, some because they feel there's no choice.

We set sail on "the hero's journey", the quest to "heal the king to heal the barren land". Ideas of a soft and gentle retreat of pampering. Cut off those man-made ideas.

Choose a question - no difference between them really. Draw your question within, express anything that arises. No censorship. Ask them their question, witness their response.

Getting your teeth stuck in. It's easy, can I have a new question now? No, just keep going. Ask their question, witness their response. Draw your question within, let it all out. Ask their question, listen to their response. Draw your question within, let anything that arises out.

Frustration, anger, apathy, floods of feelings, memories, quiet. Sweat, tears, hysterical laughter, gentle giggling, quiet. Pour it all into the crucible. Mind you let nothing leak out. Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Ask their question, witness their response. Draw your question within, do your best to express whatever arises. Contemplate with food, contemplate whilst wandering in the long grass, contemplate whilst sleeping. Silence.

Quiet whispering, hoarse raspy voices, resonant deep tones, soft speech, quiet. Silent loving compassionate listening, simply your presence, a witness to their journey.

Keep heating the crucible, stirring, the pressure rising. Gradually, in a flash the question disappears. The answer so trivial that you're incredulous you ever couldn't answer it. What cure do we find for the king? Nothing, everything. Nothing gained, nothing found. Only the whole Universe! Ha! The whole thing is ridiculous - is that it? It's profound.

Life will never be the same again. Once you've seen the magic eye image, you'll never again un-see it.
Bright-eyed, bubbly, shiny people. Happy and sad to leave.

Like digging a hole in the sand, once the hole is dug, keeping the sand at bay takes constant vigilance. It's only natural for the sand to pour back in. Practice, practice, practice and one day there may not be any sand.

ZenWays Free Intensive Zen Retreats run throughout the year

the crucible at Gaunts House