Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tea Leaves And The Shift to Spontaneous Mindfulness

Paul raised an important question in my last post about mindfulness. He was wondering if the process of being mindfull will be seen as a quick fix approach to stress. Short answer is: yes. Especially if it is seen as something to "do" in order to solve a problem. Or if it is used to temporarily give a person a quick break and then plunge right back into the ongoing events which are creating the problem.

And then someone (Bob) asked me how it can generalize such that it has more far-reaching effects beyond the several minutes of the "mindfulness minutes" exercise I suggested.

Here's my brief attempt at an answer. Consider tea leaves which are sitting in water. They are just there. But they are also changing the immediate area around them by, shall we say, sharing their essence with the water. Eventually that process will expand, with just a little movement to the entire pot of tea, even when the tea leaves are removed.

When I offered this idea, he spontaneously offered that he found himself being "mindful" of the water during a shower - without any formal attempt or suggestion to do so. He had been practising the mindful minutes "exercise" and could readily see how my explanation fit his experience, i.e., the moments surrounding the mindfulness minutes spontaneously spread without any effort or even awareness into other parts of his experience.

If I may, I like this explanation.

PostScript: I am not addressing the question of whether longer periods of mindfulness practise will create a different experience of mindfulness. Then we would have an interesting process of one word describing different experiences - but I suspect that both short "exposures" and longer periods of "sitting" are tapping into the same process.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Waking Up Falling Asleep Waking Up Falling Asleep

I was going to title this post: Mindfulness and Scatteredness, but a piece of a dream pushed it in a different direction.

Assembling the ingredients.

Ingredient #1: - a conversation with my Saturday morning friend, Ted. We were talking about how people find purpose in life, and then it shifted to one of his favorite topics - propaganda and how to help people to wake up to how they are being manipulated and then having done that, what to do about it.

He talked about doing a workshop or writing an op-ed piece. I suggested writing an essay in the style of Wendell Berry, one of his favorite authors. I talked about how if someone could organize 5 or 10 people who would all agree to write 3 articles for newspapers or give a workshop or two over the next two years, about how they have started to choose a life more based on values and relationship and quality of life rather than scurrying around and always trying to make a few bucks more to feed the consumerist addiction, that the potential impact for a community may be palpable. The stories would not be diatribes against the system but rather testimonies to a certain waking up and how the transitioning was taking place in their lives and what it looked like. (Let this ingredient sit in the background quietly percolating...)

Ingredient #2: Just before giftmas I took a questionairre which was part of a doctoral dissertation for the daughter of a friend of mine. I was happy to help out and the topic of mindfulness helped to increase my motivation to do it.

The survey took a total of about 15 minutes; as it turns out, a pleasant 15 minutes. The questions basically set the stage by asking if I, and the other participants practise any form of mindfulness meditation. Then it went on to ask a series of questions about daily experiences, mundane experiences, and the level of awareness and presence you experience during those times in a progression from never / sometimes / frequently / almost always type of progression.

For me it was like taking a test and finding out what your grade was right on the spot (although you didn't actually get a grade). The "test" was a reflection of how much the practise of mindfulness has generalized and migrated from periods of meditation to your day to day life.

Well an interesting thing happened. The experience of taking the survey "jolted me" in a very positive way. It "operationalized" mindfulness in very concrete terms and brought it to a position of immediacy in my day to day life - or at least in parts of it. Mind you I knew all of this before, and had experienced it times before, but this seemed more immediate. It was like it gave me ideas as to how to put it into effect more often.

The effect was to mobilize me to practising being present and alive, in my daily routines and actions and experiences. Being on vacation certainly made it more easy to be present, etc., but even after I returned to my office I found my ability to maintain it fairly easy. The experience of mindfulness is generally comfortable and as such it has a way of drawing you further into the practise. (Let this indredient quietly do its work of suffusing your environment over a period of a week or so.)

Ingredient #3: A dream fragment. I had a dream a few nights ago. In it several things happened and in one part there was a conversation going on between another man and myself. It was like we were both trying to size up each other, but I had the feeling that he knew something significant that I didn't know, and there was a recollection later that the conversation was around a person's purpose or "mission." There were a few other developments in the dream, and then it ended.

When I got up and started my day I had the good fortune to remember parts of the dream and also to know that there was something in this one which was trying to tell me something and I would do well to not too easily discard it. I set the intent of recalling more of the dream, and bits and pieces of it came back to me over the next several minutes.

The most interesting part was when I recalled that the other man said: "the real question is whether you can stay awake." And then I said to myself: "wow!"

I would have thought that a better question would have been: "once having awakened and then finding that you have fallen back to sleep again, how can you help yourself to wake up again?" But they are probably both equally important questions. (Let that ingredient act as a quickening agent.)

So here I am, on a roll. I've been thinking about "mission," caught on to an operationalization of mindfulness in day to day life, and have a question posed to me in a dream. As I like to say: "neat!"

What to do?

What came to me was to set in motion a practise which would address both questions, i.e., if I "fall asleep" (i.e., go on automatic pilot, go into trance, get caught in the web of mindlessness as manifested by all the addictions, and unthinking consumerism, multitasking, not paying attention, etc.), what can I do to "come to my senses," and if I am being mindful, attention, aware, awake, what can I get in the habit of doing to keep the pattern going. It's like a flywheel process; it takes a fair amount of energy / effort to getting it going, but the more it gains momentum, then the less effort is required to keep it going.

So I've been working with the following process which for lack of a better term I will call Mindfulness Minutes.

Here's the process in some detail and in an approximate sequence. But remember that this is simply an outline which can create an experience of mindfulness. Once you have practised it 5 or 10 or 150 or 1500 times it will become second nature and then you can invent and explore your own pathways and explorations to keep the flywheel of mindfulness going across time and across situations.

1. Set the intent to do it.
2. It may be helpful in the beginning to say: "this is a good time to take a break."
3. Clear a "space" so you can shift gears into being more aware and present. Typically the universal way of doing that is to bring your attention to your breath. Watch your breath; really become aware of it.
4. There is no effort to change anything about your breathing. It may want to spontaneously shift, and if so, bring mindful awareness to that, and let it happen - or not; either way be aware of the experience. Keep it fresh.
5. Whatever you become aware of bring your awareness to it. The second learned reflex during the mindfulness minutes is to not make any judgements about what you are aware of or experiencing. The strategy is one of watching and being aware without the need to label and differentiate. Even when you notice events being judged, evaluated, sliced and diced into favorite or unusual categories, "simply" let mindfulness be aware of the process without judging, labeling and differentiating.
6. You will probably become aware of events in your mind (images, thoughts, conversations) and your body (sensations, feelilngs) or in your environment. In every instance let yourself become aware of what is presently in, or coming into, your awareness. Let it be. Any effort to bring it forth or to push it away is not part of this exercise - except as, yet again, another opportunity to let mindfulness "be and do" its thing.
7. As you become aware of something, notice it, and let it go. It's like you are encouraging impermanance.
8. The "letting go" is without effort. The easiest way I have found to do this is to both bring attention to the event in experience and let the awareness bring you further into the experience and if you are not trying to hold on to it, it will naturally morph across time. Or, when you notice the sensation or the image, notice it and then on your exhale let your mindful attention go to the experience of exhaling.
9. Do this for a few minutes and then move back into whatever you had been doing or whatever the next thing is that you want to do.
10. Now that you have set the intent to do it, and have practised it, the next step is to set up some sort of feedback loop that reminds you at random times throughout the day to take that break. Whenever I walk in a particular corridor I take it as a cue to practise. I have done it when I walk through a door way, i.e., I take that as a reminder of the opportunity. I take a cue from a muscle in my neck; it it gets too tight, I use it as a reminder. The best is to come up with your own.

There is lots and lots more to this, but this is basic introduction that can get you started. Reading this may make it sound complicated, but it isn't. Just do it, or don't. If you do it, be aware not only of what you experience during the mindful minutes, but also what impact it has on you across time.

I would love to hear your comments about this.