Creatures of habit

Forming and maintaining a habit of mindfulness practice.

Given we are in times of huge uncertainly, pressure, bewilderment, fear .. you name it .. we perhaps have more need than ever to attend (literally) to our habits - the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Here is advice from James Clear (author of 'Atomic Habits') who addresses the age-old issue of habit and habit change - this time in the service of developing/restarting or maintaining a mindfulness practice of some sort. From his talk with Sam Harris (Waking Up app).  

Using his '4 laws of behavioural change'

1. Make it obvious/visible where you're going to practice. Try to carve out a spot in the environment that can then be associated with your practice. Have a space, pillows, a stool. If it's in a room where you normally e.g., watch tv, make a change in that room - eg bring in a chair. Make it special. Connected to this we could form an 'implementation intention' - a sentence to write down .. "I will do x minutes of practice here each day at this time". (my note here - if you cannot for some reason do your practice, then don't dwell on your failing thereafter, accept it, and begin again).

2. Make it appealing, attractive  For example, when choosing the type of practice, you might (initially anyway) go for a guided meditation by a favourite speaker. You can branch out later.

3. Make it easy  For example, if 30 minutes is daunting, then choose a shorter practrice - even 5 minutes to start with will get you going, establish a routine which will form a habit (again).

4. Make it satisfying   Keep a diary, keep track on an app - make it visual. (my note - you could 'buddy-up' with someone else on-line, exchange your practice experience, do your own inquiry).

NB As Sam Harris points out, meditation is different from forms of self- improvement where you are reaching for a goal, mindfulness practice is not per se about becoming a meditator -  we want our practice to enter our lives, bringing peace, equanimity, happiness .. so 'coming to' -  even for 5, 10, 30 seconds - many times in the day  - can be powerful, literally life-changing. (cf Rick Hanson's brain- changing/neuroplasticity approach in eg 'Just One Thing'). 

So we can always work on (re)establishing a formal practice using habit-building tips like the ones above - and at the same time remembering we can use the everyday lives we are leading, maybe using a handy trigger such as when we move from one room to another, climb the stairs, sit down, go for a walk, have a meal, watch the sky from our window, to come back to an awareness of this moment, this being here, accepting and inhabiting it as it is. 

Rick Hanson's 5 minute challenge

Within these times it's easy for any of us to get caught up in cycles of fear, contraction and hopelessness. So here's a simple, quick practice from Rick Hanson that we can build into each day of our lives - to build resilience and to train our minds towards a greater capacity to open up to well-being, happiness and appreciation for all that is good and positive in our lives - even/especially whilst living through a time of risk and uncertainty - this will help us 'top up' our reserves, help us not get burnt out and exhausted.

Practice the following five or six times a day (singly or blend together as opportunities arise)

1. Look out for the good, small experiences (a clear blue sky, completing a task, a bird landing on your window sill, someone cooking you a nice meal, a smile from a colleague) and take a breath, slow down, let the experience sink into you, savour it, allow it space to grow. This is basically developing self-reliance, not dependent on the vagaries of the external world.

2. Know one thing (or more) you are trying to 'grow' inside you these days (patience, greater self-compassion, equilibrium, courage, kindness to others..) and look for any chances in the day when you can recognise, feel and internalise this personal 'challenge' - for a couple of minutes.

3. Come home to what RH calls our 'deep green' - for just a minute or two - when we rest back into our core - of peace, contentment, love, spaciousness. ... whatever resonates  - when we basically feel 'okay' with what is, and we can know this.

We can practice this for ourselves - but it will impact on those around us.





Styles of Tonglen - part 2

Drawn from Pema Chödrön's ' Good Medicine' from her Audio Collection

The simplest style of tonglen is 'On the Spot'. It's about taking a tonglen attitude towards pleasure and plain. So, when things are painful or difficult we can remember to practice the simple thought: 'other people feel this'.  This can help mitigate the feeling that pain is an individual burden. Because the sense of shared humanity is emotionally healing. This is enough to open our hearts.  There can be other, more challenging levels, but this simple practice of remembering is good enough.

 The other half of the practice is whenever we experience happiness in life we remember to say/think/feel "May others feel this". It can apply to any everyday pleasure such as enjoying a cup of tea or watching or listening to a blackbird. (cf Rick Hanson's 'Feeling the good').

Little Gidding

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always -

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

Ali manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Excerpt from 'Little Gidding' from Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot 

Tonglen (receiving-giving) or Compassionate Breathing

Tonglen practice is derived from an ancient Tibetan tradition, brought to Tibet by Atiśa in the 10th century, and made clear by Geshe (who used with lepers) in the 12th century. Used much more recently in, for example, hospices - not to cure - but to help heal the spirit - to bring some sense of meaning to pain, to help send out relief to others. It often does not require words, more feelings and images.  It can be a formal practice or an 'on the spot' one - whatever suits. There's a more modern, secular version from van den Brink and Frits Koster (A Practical Guide to Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living p 84 - 85) which they call 'Compassionate Breathing' The practice has value in all traditions, with secular and spiritual application - requiring a willingness to witness and indeed sense our own and others' suffering. Caution: it can seem a 'heavy' practice as it encourages us to be with and breathe in suffering, but if done with an open, allowing mind, letting us gently explore, then it can be a highly relevant practice and a route to compassionate awareness - for self and others.  Go gently.

'For it is in giving that we receive.'    -    St Francis of Assisi

The following introductory guidance to tonglen is taken from Pema Chödrön's 'Good Medicine' (from her Audio Collection). Compassion is about our relationship with pain - our own and others. We use this principle in all loving-kindness (maitre) and compassion practices. It's all about our shared humanity. This is different from pity (condescending) and even from empathy (can overwhelm).

Usually when we feel discomfort we push away. With tonglen meditation we breathe in discomfort with the sense of 'what I am feeling in this moment is felt by millions of others all over the world'. Then we can send out that which is joyful, uplifting, compassionate, spaciousness - relating to ourselves and to everyone else. Our experience is thus a stepping stone to understanding others. It's a relationship of equality. It can be an everyday practice. It can also help us notice how often we shut down. It changes our relationship with pain (usually we push away) and with pleasure (usually we hold on). When we feel such things we can know these are all felt by others. When things hurt (eg, we feel angry) - we can feel/say/know other people feel this. When things are delightful (eg, we feel a cool breeze when we are hot) - we can say 'may other people feel this". So we use our daily (albeit small) personal experience of painful or pleasurable occurrences to practice this form of tonglen. This can help heal and strengthen us.

The essence of tonglen is using 'unwonted' circumstances to help us mentally and spiritually (Enlightenment in Buddhist terms). Rather than magnifying our own 'story lines' we can just be with, using the energy from our emotions to transform and heal. The sense could be: 'Since I am feeling this pain, may I feel and use it to help others'. So we breathe in with an aspiration to use strong emotion to help/heal others. We are acknowledging we are all in same boat.  We breathe out relief to all who are feeling pain.

So Pema Chödrön teaches that when we feel, see or hear pain and suffering close to us, or further afield, we can do tonglen for our own confusion/pain or for others anywhere in the world. It changes our relationship with pain, especially our fear of pain. She teaches us to do tonglen 'on the spot' - just breathing in the sense of pain, the emotional distress , and then breathing out relief, spaciousness, hope.

She warns/advises us not to start using such an 'on the spot' practice with the most disturbing, discomforting emotions, but 'to practice' with some of our smaller emotions or irritations. Even in these life-changing times, there will still be plenty of these..