Obsessively grasping for something or someone leads us down the path to distress or suffering if we’re not mindful. Here’s to becoming aware of it in thoughts and actions, and letting go by simply observing and moving the attention back to the breath, and becoming more discerning of where we should be paying attention. The quality of our lives depends on where our attention is. There’s no need to grasp.
The breath represents life, it’s the first thing we do when we become a life. Being conscious of the breath also has the benefit of activating the parasympathetic nervous system that restores us to equilibrium and calms us down.
It’s also possible that the breath can be triggering. If you find it difficult to focus on the breath, just do the best you can as an observer, bringing to bear just an intention to observe and nothing else.
Breathing (extract), Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing in, I have become space without boundaries. I have no plans left. I have no luggage.
Breathing out, I am the moon that is sailing through the sky of utmost emptiness. I am freedom.
Thoughts such as judgments, beliefs, and assumptions are transient, impermanent, and mental events. The invitation is to simply observe our thoughts, and not get hooked, believe or act on everything that the mind suggests, and instead to practise
This is a practice of decoupling or de-centering from mental chatter, and viewing thinking as a mental event. It’s often not easy as our thoughts are so compelling and urgent, requiring us to act on them immediately, in the process exhausting us. Here we develop our capacity to observe and let go of the need to answer back or to react toward our thoughts. The practice ends with a reading of Robert Frost’s poem The Sound of Trees (extract).
Here’s the full poetry.
I wonder about the trees. Why do we wish to bear Forever the noise of these More than another noise So close to our dwelling place? We suffer them by the day Till we lose all measure of pace, And fixity in our joys, And acquire a listening air. They are that that talks of going But never gets away; And that talks no less for knowing, As it grows wiser and older, That now it means to stay. My feet tug at the floor And my head sways to my shoulder Sometimes when I watch trees sway, From the window or the door. I shall set forth for somewhere, I shall make the reckless choice Some day when they are in voice And tossing so as to scare The white clouds over them on. I shall have less to say, But I shall be gone.
This practice is about meeting anxiety as and when it arises. Anxiety is often characterized by a fast beating heart, sweaty palms, and maybe throbbing pain in the head. The feelings seem unpleasant, naturally compelling us to want to push them away or to get rid of them. By giving in to this reaction, we are merely avoiding and allowing anxiety to have a grip over us. We are not learning how to respond skillfully to difficulties.
The invitation is to allow ourselves to witness whatever that is arising by pausing from judging, staying as still as we can (not needing to react), and staying with the experience (not needing to run away, distract ourselves or zone out). If the feelings are overwhelming, we approach by dipping our toes and homing in slowly, as best as we can seeing anxious feelings as transient (even if they seem to last forever or they’re recurrent), and as merely outcomes of the mind and body (even if they seem so real). They do not define our identity, they are simply experiences, and we can choose how to respond to them. The response can be not to do anything but simply to just observe and embrace all life experiences as they are.
Poetry for today is Between Going & Staying, by Octavio Paz (translated).
In the midst of our busy-ness, moving from one thing to another on our to-do list, it is easy to forget what our intentions are or could be. Being mindful of them helps us stay true to our values and lead a more meaningful life instead of a zombie one. So this is a meditation about practicing observing our intentions before we do anything such as taking an inbreath or out-breath. Refining our capacity to just pause for a moment before acting.
Ending this with one of my favourite poems, Summer Day by Mary Oliver (extract):
Here’s a meditation about sitting in the present moment and in stillness regardless how we’re feeling. Telling ourselves, “I do not have all the answers but I am here”, “It feels unpleasant but no action is needed”.
Inviting ourselves time and time again that we can acknowledge all of what we are feeling yet not have to react and rise to the bait of all feelings. It may be difficult to do so. We take it step by step but dipping our toes in slowly.
Inspiration sought from the poem The Invitation by the Oriah Mountain Dreamer (excerpt):
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
I want to know if you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes‘.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
Guide: Noelle Lim
Duration: 20 mins
Image credit: Anastasiia Rozumna, Unsplash
To attend our live meditation sessions, register here
Feeling tone or feeling sense is a sense of awareness that we typically interpret as unpleasant, pleasant or neutral. It is what puts us in a foul mood or a good one. The Pali translation in Buddhist text is “vedana”.
It is natural to desire pleasant experiences, to avoid unpleasant ones, and to zone out or feel bored, restless and even empty when there are neutral feelings (the mind constantly need stimulation). It is those underlying desires that cause us to be unhappy or stressed when things are not going according to our wishes.
The antidote is to become conscious of and to tune in to any feeling tones so that we are aware what is causing us to “suffer” in the first place. And then, we let these feelings come and go without needing to get caught up in them. We weaken the grip of reactivity, and find peace.
The practice ends with the poem On Pain by Khalil Gibran:
And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
The painting above, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of Renoir’s finest masterpieces, and one of his last Impressionist work. More interestingly from my perspective, it was painted using his left hand because he broke his right, but the awkward experience ended up giving him new inspiration. He wrote in a letter to a patron: “It’s even better than what I did with the right (hand). I think that was a good thing that I broke my arm. It allows me to make progress.”
That’s the essence of the program I teach, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)—giving ourselves permission to respond in new ways to difficulties instead of falling back on the security of our habitual “doing” tendencies. In the process learning new wisdom.
Q: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about intentionally paying attention to the present moment with non-judgement. We pay attention to what is arising on the outside such as smell, and in our inner world: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, impulses to act, and feeling-tones. We assume a sense of equanimity, which means staying engaged and accepting whatever that has arisen or is arising without needing to like nor dislike the experience. It is aided by bringing to bear the attitude of a beginner’s mind or curiosity, and kindness or friendliness. By doing so, the mind is more steady and less reactive. We can be more wise in our actions and speech.
Q: What then is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)?
MBCT combines mindfulness practices and cognitive therapy principles. Three psychology professors—John Teasdale (Cambridge), Mark Williams (Bangor, now Oxford), and Zindel Segal (Toronto)—developed MBCT with the aim of providing a non-drug alternative to reducing depression relapses. This was in the 1990s. MBCT is approved by NHS England and is now also widely taught to the general population to deal with stress and to flourish. Together with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), MBCT is considered a gold standard secular mindfulness program because they are evidence-based, and observe rigorous teaching standards.
MBCT starts off by learning to switch out of autopilot and to ground ourselves. Henceforth we are more awake, anchored and less automatically derailed by triggers. We remain guided by our values, and have more capacity to be calm, compassionate and resilient.
Cognitive therapy is widely used by psychologists to help clients become aware of how their thoughts and feelings drive behavior. Here we appreciate that thoughts and feelings are simply outcomes of the mind and body processes. They are outside our locus of control, they are impermanent and innocuous. Hence, instead of striving to get rid of thoughts and feelings which had already arisen eg anxiety, we stay in the present moment and focus our energy on what we can do, which is forging a kind relationship toward them. Eventually anxiety reduces its grip.
All this sounds easy and logical but when we are caught in the heat of the moment, we easily lose sight of this wisdom. That’s why we practice mindfulness frequently to allow the mind to unlearn and learn new habits. I am learning this every day!
Q: Is MBCT about just letting it be, not progressing and changing our circumstances?
Generally, our default reaction to difficulties is to “do something” eg ruminate, blame others, avoid, suppress, neutralize with positive thoughts (even if they are untrue or unvalidated), or to keep ourselves busy and distracted. We can’t help ourselves! Mindfulness calls for a different response of non-doing. Something far less exhausting.
The invitation is to connect directly with our inner world experiences (as opposed to analyzing them in our head), to practice letting go of the need to get rid of or to fix unwanted experiences, and to accept our humanity its warts and all. This creates conditions for us to be more flexible and to see a bigger perspective rather than be ruled by our “lizard brain”. So we are on a more steady footing to decide our next course of action instead of habitually launching into avoiding, distracting, and running around in circles.
Q: Is MBCT or mindfulness religious-based?
MBCT is adapted from MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and adds to it the understanding of cognitive therapy. Jon Kabat Zinn started a stress reduction clinic and developed MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s. His work is influenced by his yoga and Buddhist practices of calm, compassion and insight by simply accepting the present moment as it is; and to integrate these teachings with empirical research. To date, more than a thousand studies have been done on the efficacy of mindfulness-based programs, mostly showing positive or promising results for responding to physical and mental health conditions eg stress, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
MBSR/MBCT is informed by Buddhist psychology that suffering eg unhappiness is due to cravings and aversions formed by our non-discerning (unwholesome) judgements. But MBCT/MBSR is not Buddhism per se because it does not prescribe core Buddhism beliefs of rebirth and karma.
It should also be noted that mindfulness and meditation are mentioned in all mainstream religions. They just differ in purpose. For Christians, the centre of awareness is God while Buddhism is about achieving enlightenment (nibbana) that requires a high level of concentration.
MBCT/MBSR is about practicing equanimity and kindness in responding to life. The anchor is whatever that is available such as sound. MBCT/MBSR program is therefore universal and secular. It is about uncovering the masterpiece within us.
For more info about my MBCT course, see 8-Week Mindfulness (Jul-Aug) here
Feel free to join my talk on the Art & Science of Mindfulness to get more details about how MBCT works. On Wed, 26 May, 7:30 – 8:30pm MYT/SGT/HKT via Zoom. Register on Eventbrite at www.bit.ly/asmindful4
Drop me a note if you have any questions or feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
During this Eid festive season, the invitation is to allow the mind to quieten and the body to rest and recharge. For those who had or will be receiving their vaccination shots for Covid-19, this mini body scan offers a helpful response to ensuing side effects like fever and body aches. Stay safe and healthy.
Inspired by Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.
Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.
Practicing mindfulness helps us deal with impatience because it seems like it has a relationship with time – needing things now or yesterday. A practice might seem to take forever because our minds constantly need to be stimulated and “satisfied”. It’s this constant shifting attention, always searching, never resting, that keeps us in reactionary mode. So instead of perpetually seeking stimulation and getting lost in our thoughts and stories, the invitation is to engage with the present moment differently, and to be able to just sit with the passage of time.
The inspiration of this practice came from a poetry by Rabindranath Tagore.
The butterfly counts not months but moments,
and has time enough.
Time is a wealth of change,
but the clock in its parody makes it mere change and no wealth.
Shaped by evolution, our minds are constantly busy scanning experiences and benchmarking it to some expectation to keep us safe and feeling pleasant. Here is an invitation to drop expectations to free up space in the head in order to truly hear ourselves and access our being.
This practise is inspired by Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest’s writings, “Only An Invitation”.
What he wrote could be interpreted as the law of nature is as it is. Accepting and adapting to these laws, we could become more comfortable with changes and be less unhappy.
In this practise, we observe nature that is our changing experiences such as thoughts, emotions and body feelings moment-by-moment, and cultivate the capacity to accept what’s here for us like unwanted thoughts without needing to have a different experience.