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Is practicing mindfulness something you don’t get round to?

The hard bit about mindfulness is the discipline of practicing it every day, particularly when we don’t feel like it. It’s one powerful way the ego has of deflecting us from what we need for our path. Thus it can be very easy to drop the practice after a while because it seems like “it isn’t working”. Practicing mindfulness needs to be regular to see the benefits.

Lets say your practice includes an early morning meditation. You’ve committed to this time to give yourself some space before the day starts for you to go within, be still, let go of thoughts and enjoy your inner calm. Maybe you’ve been told it is a good time to do this, and certainly seasoned meditators affirm the value of the quiet of the early morning, particularly just before sunrise.

The busy mind

Yet one day you find your mind is really busy with the day’s activities and your schedule, like you’ve already started work! So you find it difficult to settle and have a mediation where instead of focusing on your breath you get all these thoughts buzzing round your head. It’s not easy because one reason you took up the practice was to still your mind. On another day you get ready for your meditation but you realise you are a bit late, and so you have the worry of being late and it “spoils” your meditation, like it didn’t come up to your expectations and you feel stressed. Another time, you feel hungry and want a good cup of coffee to start your day. This day you badly need that coffee, and so you decide that has to come first and then you’ll meditate. But you don’t because its late and your mind is busy. Then things slip more and before you know it you haven’t been doing your meditation a while and it seems no point. Then you decide “it doesn’t work” and give it up.

Now I’m not saying that you the reader are like this. I’m just giving a list of common reasons why people find the sustained, regular practice difficult. You might like to check through the reasons above and look at what is common amongst them. There’s the busy mind, lots of thoughts; there’s feelings, like worry in this case; there’s the list of what to do; there’s expectations about things being as we want; there’s stress; there’s the desire for something; there’s our excuses. I could go on.

The ego distracts us

These are aspects of how the ego operates to distract us from our true goal and keep us safe in our limited state because that is what it beliefs enables us to survive. But we know how to survive and we want to grow further and move beyond the ego to know who we really are. The ego resists this and uses techniques like deflection, to shift our attention to things like desire and attachment, what we believe we want and what we are attached to and don’t want to let go of. Yet through mindfulness you can get to see how your ego gets in the way.

Steady practice

Mindfulness involves the steady practice of using the breath or a mantra to help us focus or concentrate, to step back from the activities of the mind and observe our process. In this we notice what occurs, rather than be caught up in it, and be in the state of non-attachment, where we let go of the ego’s ways, and rest in our inner stillness. Here the mind can still chatter on and we rest in our stillness within. Each meditation is another chance to practice, and to notice the ego at work, let go and rest in our stillness. This is ongoing as we gradually find our stillness more and more.

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Being driven can drive us to illness

People who help others can neglect looking after themselves. It’s a well-known hazard in the helping professions and Christmas here in the UK can serve as a useful reminder, if only that it is a common time for people to go down with bugs and be sick. It’s like we chase around after our own tails, get to the Christmas holiday and collapse in a sorry heap, like much of the rest of the workforce.

One characteristic is not knowing you’re exhausted till you stop. It’s slipped out of our conscious awareness. For the skilled helper, like coaches, counsellors, nurses and many others, our focus is “out there” with the needs of others. Then there’s those familiar drivers like the perceived need to make a difference, to work hard, to put others before oneself, to “get it right”, and so on, all perfectly worthy but also good solid compulsions towards burn out if not moderated by some good life balance activities.

“Slowing things down” is not a fashionable motif in our current compulsive, immediate gratification, “have it now”, “do it quick” paradigm. Yet, this is exactly what’s needed. The skilled helper needs to be self aware and socially aware, tuned in, conscious, picking up the subtleties in the field of awareness. We can’t do that if we’re driven, or not so well.

To help others means we also need to know how to help ourselves. The two go together. Otherwise we’re out of integrity. We’re not walking our talk. There’s otherwise a lie at the heart of what we’re doing, or if we’re unaware of it, then a failure to sustain awareness when under pressure.

And these are tough times for many people, which puts more demands on us. So we need to set an example and be a role model. Just like any leader.

So, as the Christmas holiday approaches, it’s wise to set time aside to be still, to meditate, to walk, to talk to people, to laugh, to let go. “But I can’t,” I can hear many wail. And that’s just it. That’s where we’re caught up, thinking that “we can’t”. Saying “we can’t”, is to fail to take responsibility, to not realise we always have choice. And to choose again.

In the Christian tradition, or at least for those 59% of the UK who still nominally say they’re Christian, many of us celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace”. So, it’s a good time to be in peace, and what better way to enjoy That is to start preparing ourselves for it in the days that come. And for others, why not use the opportunity to have some peace too, a time for renewal. Om shanti.

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There are always reminders of our inner presence

Yesterday we went out to visit a friend for her birthday and took the chance of this “re-birth” day too to go to a local architectural beauty, Tewkesbury Abbey. Inside the building was decorated with yellow spring flowers and it was filled with incense from the morning Easter Sunday service. The incense hung in the building as a thin mist, which gave an even more ethereal feel to the place. It was suitably mysterious but full of energy from the earlier celebration.

Tewkesbury Abbey altar and choir
Tewkesbury Abbey altar and choir

Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Christ, and whatever your views about this or other aspects of Christian beliefs, it still felt good to be around a celebration of a major event in people’s lives. The event has  symbolised for so many people the conquest of death, and offered immense and reassuring hope to people despite the difficulties of their lives that in the end, if they stayed with their faith they would live for ever in paradise, that life is everlasting.

This aspect runs through much of religion and spiritual practice around the world, that if you change direction, or keep on your path, you will be rewarded, that the current dispensation is prone to suffering but that it doesn’t have to be like this, that humans are liable to go off down some unhelpful side alley but they can return to truth and awaken to what is really there for them. However, to do this, they need to challenge the devil within them and re-focus on that which uplifts them.

How we interpret this, and what gloss we put put on it is down to us, unless you buy into those that insist that their particular version is the only way.

I walked around the building in the mist. It was a quite dark day and so very dark inside, despite the subdued lighting, which helped create the particular mystery that these buildings have. The Abbey is very old, dating back to the 12th Century, and has lots of chapels built for the local medieval aristocracy. It was a monastery until the 16th Century but clearly well-endowed by those well-heeled who needed prayers to be said for their departed souls, as they saw it.

The darkness of the building took my awareness within and the lofty heights raised it upwards. In these places the eye is almost naturally drawn up, which was no doubt intentional for its creators. The smell of the incense penetrated my lungs and has stayed as a sense of the spirit of the place. The presence in these places stills my mind and remains as an image reminder of inner stillness for hours afterwards.

Whatever we do and wherever we go, there are always reminders of our inner presence. It’s a matter perhaps of noticing them and re-membering.

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Do you keep Sunday special?

A news report today is suggesting that the UK government is considering the temporary suspension of the Sunday trading laws.  These laws limit the hours shops can be open that day, and they are proposing suspending them because it is thought advantageous to have the big shops open over the period of the summer Olympic and Para-Olympic games this year. Immediately the “Keep Sunday Special” lobby has sprung into action in defence of limited opening hours and there are accusations of more anti-Christian behaviour in government.

For those outside the UK who might be bemused by all this, once upon a time shops were closed all day on Sunday and generally the streets would be fairly empty of people and traffic. Going back even further in time, large numbers would file into their local church for their dutiful hour or so of worship. People would consult their bible on their soul’s current needs and it was supposed to be a time of prayer and sobriety, in the good old Puritan tradition of “observing the Sabbath”. I can remember not being allowed to go out and play because, I was told, people wanted “peace and quiet”. Curiously, however, nobody in my immediate family went to church.

The decline of such observance is perhaps testimony to the decline of traditional religion in the UK. As has been argued before in this blog, this doesn’t mean spiritual life has somehow been extinguished. Far from it. But it does show how differently we now behave in terms of how we use the traditional “day off” from work.

For those who are concerned at the utter busyiness and drivenness of contemporary life however, it might be worth pausing to reflect on quite how you use your time off and how much time you devote to inner awareness and reflection. Arguably one trend of modern life in the West has been to squeeze out awareness of the inner life and to focus us on material trappings and the pursuit of more. Interestingly, as we have grown more prosperous, church attendance, to use one measure, has steadily fallen. Other means have arisen to help us manage the existential dilemmas of life and the possibilities of eternity. We can instead go shopping and a bit of retail therapy can usefully serve to postpone such issues to another day.

Thus, if you are concerned about the pace and obsessions of contemporary life, and even more your own inner state, it can still be worthwhile to develop and sustain your own practice of giving yourself time to be still and contemplate silence and stillness and find what utter peace and beauty can be found there. For example, an hour at the start of each day, or even half and hour, in which there is a regular practice of being still and silent, and aware.

Then we can allow in the total love and comprehension of universal presence.

And then go shopping.

An hour each day like this, perhaps also with some reading of something uplifting, can transform your day.

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Try just being and not doing for a while

In an activity-orientated society such as ours, the thought of not doing very much might seem a bit strange. Which begs some interesting questions.

This came up recently in a conversation I was having. “What do you like doing?” I asked, to get the reply, “Not very much. I just like being.”

Now I guess a lot of people would find the prospect of that a bit uncomfortable for them. We’re all very busy, so much so that it’s a pretty regular question to ask, “How are you? Keeping busy?” So, to say “No”, would put presumably put you in the Not So Well category.

You could test it out for yourself. Let go of whatever you are doing and just sit or stand and wait a bit. See how you react after a while. Does your mind start to run off on something you are working on, or something you feel you ought to be doing, or something that’s coming up later on? Check it out.

If you meditate, do you find your mind gets very active and you need to address your mental busyness in order to get the benefits of meditation? If you have have an “idle” few moments, do you get fidgety?

To spend your time not doing very much but just being therefore might seem crazy to many people, but to those interested in perhaps the quality of their aware, conscious life, it’s a very different matter. To them, to not “do” very much would be something to be almost envied. How about not being under any obligation to earn money, for example, and to have no family commitments, and no targets and deadlines and obligations to others? How about just spending some time sitting in a park, or walking down a country lane, or sitting in a room contemplating the view?

The key to this is the quality of your inner life and the meaning you derive from it, and what is important to you, your values.

One who for example likes to be present, in the moment of Now, could be deriving great bliss from that very moment. The more you stay with That, you more you get That.

I would suggest that we don’t do enough of this, and we have lost the art of contemplation of stillness, silence and presence.

So, when you next get a “spare moment”, use it to be present, in the moment, just Being, and allow the very richness of Being to come to you.

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Being present in the silence

As it’s snowing at present here and in much of Europe, people may find their activities restricted. Apart from those perhaps stuck somewhere and having difficulty, and we should keep them in our thoughts during this freeze-up, for those  of us perhaps stuck in-doors we might feel frustrated by the limitation, and then we could reflect on what it might have to teach us.

Enforced idleness, lets say, in a society accustomed to feeling driven and busy, can be a strange one. We might look round for “something to do”. Our minds could “go off on one”. And then we could just be still.

And listen to the quiet.

The snow might have dulled sound. It might seem still.

So, you could be present with the stillness, aware of it, being the observer of it. Just being still.

Just now I found this statement by Eckhart Tolle: “The human condition: lost in thought“.

We get so caught up in thinking and go off all over the place. Absorbed in ego. So here’s a good time to be still, and let the mind just quieten down and be still. They say, a watched mind becomes still. So, watch it.

As you become aware of the stillness, go into it. Be right there in it. Feel it. Let it touch your heart. Breathe it in to your heart centre. And be very aware and present.

It’s very simple really. We just get lost in thought.


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the Winter Solstice is a good time to tune into nature

At this time of the year, as we get closer to Christmas and many of us in the West scurry around before Christmas on the annual pre-festival spending spree, it is not so obvious that this is also the time of year for more ancient festivals that are timed for the Winter Solstice, such as Yuletide in the UK.

The earth energy seems to slow down and there’s a natural still point around the time of the Solstice, a pause in the earth’s cycle. Because I think of the pre-Christmas splurge, people don’t notice this time. For the aware, however, it is a good time to meditate, and therefore to plan for this. So, we’ll be holding a special webinar for this occasion, in the evening in the UK, which will include a guided meditation.

It’s a good time to let your awareness tune into nature around you. At one time I used to meditate in a hut in the grounds of the house we had. It was good at this time to go out to meditate when it was dark and it was quiet. We were in the countryside, so that was easier to get. As I’d walk to the hut, I’d sense the plants, trees and shrubs around me and the earth beneath them, and feel the soil and the dead leaves, as autumn had just finished, and the moisture in the ground, and the wind blowing through them. Whatever the actual weather, the earth energy would feel still, as if in suspension, pausing, waiting, attending, pregnant with future possibility but still and very conscious of itself.

So it would be an excellent space in which to go within, and connect with this sense, take the outer stillness inside and connect with inner stillness. In the stillness consciousness is vibrating, and one can sense the vibration, the aliveness in the stillness. It’s a paradox and the two coexist in the One.

So, if you like to meditate, see if you can make space in your diary so that you can take time out on 21st for a special connection with nature, and with yourself.

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Aching for stillness

I’ve crawled around the place today, having picked up a mild flu-like bug. There’snow outside and I’m thankful to be at home and not needing to travel. I’m interestingly enjoying not doing very much, just admin tasks and now some blogging.

The house is very silent and still, snugly wrapped in its snow coat, and the fire is going. I like this dark stillness that descends at this upcoming Solstice time. Since I need to look after myself, I’m gently nursing the aches and pains and being very attentive to my body. Doing that helps me to be very present right now, despite the aches.

In fact it’s a good time to gently be still and breathe into the pain. Nothing to do, no where to go, no expectations, just me, my body, aches and stillness. I notice and let go of any tendency to feel sorry for myself (I’m an expert at that). Just return to present-moment awareness, enjoying stillness. Enjoying is breathing in joy, being aware of joy. Nothing to do with it, just be with it.

In the stillness lies nothing and everything.

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When it’s cold outside, make the inner space warm

Outside the chill continues. Now the intense frosty clear days are replaced by snow. It’s been a day of sleet and snow, as I’ve been driving up to London, with a icy, chilling north-easterly wind. The UK doesn’t do snow very well, probably because we don’t usually get much of it and it melts quickly. So often it’s a wet snow, as today.

As I’ve been writing in this blog, this is a great time to make good inner space, not just literally in your home but also in yourself inside. There’s a natural drawing within at this time. Many spiritual traditions’ feast days come close together and shortly we come to the winter solstice, before the sun begins its next upward climb. The earth’s energy slows down to a still period for about 2 to 3 weeks. So it’s good to follow that, taking time out to be still, meditate if you do that, or have reading or reflection time.

Creating inner space takes practice. You need to make time for it daily. We crowd ourselves out with so many thoughts, busy incessant thinking. Most of the time we aren’t aware we’re doing it, doing it to ourselves. Using awareness work enables you to create space: pausing, breathing, taking awareness within, using the breath to still your mind, relaxing with each out-breath, with each in-breath going within, finding a space inside, in your heart centre, in your solar plexus or your stomach area, some quiet, still inner space.

You could visualise it if need be. Imagine a chamber inside which you access by going down some steps. There at the bottom, you can imagine a special room, perhaps specially decorated to your taste. You could perhaps open a door and go inside. Perhaps there’s a nice, comfortable couch or a deep easy chair, or perhaps you like to sit on the ground in some way. It’s warm in there. You have been keeping it warm all the time, after all. You could have a candle burning in there – it might even be always burning, waiting for you.

As you sit and gaze on the candle flame, you might be aware that that light also burns inside you – always. So allow yourself to contemplate that flame and then close your eyes, relax and contemplate your inner candle flame. And be still and rest in the awareness that you are that flame, always alight, always burning.

And after a while, bring yourself back, perhaps going up those steps, and return to the full wakefulness of your day, knowing that that flame is always there and you can return to it at any time.

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Going inside

This is a time when one gets really aware of the changing seasons here in the Northern hemisphere, as autumn deepens, the leaves turn gold and start to fall, it gets colder and the nights draw in.

Sometimes to me it can feel a sad time. I think that is an association with the return to school after the summer holidays, especially when I went to a boarding school and thus was away from home. But I think there’s also a sadness with the summer ending more generally, things coming to an end. After all, the fruit is ripening, food is stored, and we prepare for the coming winter. The seemingly relaxed time of being out in the open, here in the UK is replaced by being inside, wrapped up against the cold outside.

More recently, I’ve come to welcome the approach of autumn and winter as a time of drawing inside in the spiritual sense. As the nights are longer, so the house is darker and it feels more like it is a very good time to draw the senses inward. So, rather than a defensive shutting down, I like to think of attending to the deeper recesses of the mind, the stillness that dwells inside. Just as nature encloses itself and hibernates.

It’s a very good time to meditate. So, as it gets dark at the end of the working day, or before the working day starts as it gets light, here is a great place to be still. At the end of the day, the energy is dropping downward, or before sunrise it’s about to get going. These are still points. Meditation is particularly good to do just at the end of the night, in the last hour before dawn, as the energetic cycle has reached a still point. So it’s more practicable now!

Try it. Get up early (“My God, must I do that!!!?”), when it is dark. Maybe have some water or tea, stretch, do some yoga poses if you do yoga, or some tai chi. Now, wide awake, you can light a candle in your meditation space if you have one. Settle down and, as you take some deeper breaths to start your meditation, really become attentive of the darkness and the stillness of the last part of the night, knowing it is about to start getting light. Feel the stillness of nature. Get very much into the present moment with the stillness. Hear the stillness, letting go of attachment to sounds. See the blackness around the light of your candle. And take that stillness inside with your in-breath. Become aware of your inner stillness. Now feel, hear or imagine your inner stillness. And rest your awareness there, as you meditate.