Mindfulness and Therapy

People come to therapy for all sorts of reasons. They want to move from stuckness to action, from difficulty to ease, from sorrow to happiness, or they come looking for a more meaningful life.

David Brazier, the author of Zen Therapy, once told me that:

“If you only learn how to do one thing in therapy, learn to ask ‘is this true?’”

In therapy we are trying to become more and more honest; to get a clearer picture of what is true.

If someone comes to therapy because they are struggling with a relationship, the therapist will be interested in what is true in this situation. This will not only mean allowing any difficult emotions to be expressed, but it will also include looking at what each person in the relationship is bringing to the struggle. For example it is likely that both the client and their significant other are carrying old wounds and bringing these to the conflict. As the client sees and accepts more of what is true, they are less likely to turn so quickly to anger. It might be that they start to understand where the strength of their own emotion comes from, or are more able to understand how their partner’s anger is based on their own old wounds.

Sometimes just accepting a newly seen truth is enough to move the situation forward. It may be that when the client sees their partner’s suffering they are able to let go of a layer of blame, or it may be that understanding and accepting what is true can lead to a new conversation between the client and their partner. Either way there is a sense of moving forwards.

Ideally we approach these new truths without judgment; we come with curiosity and interest.  Of course we all fall into judging, but as we begin to understand the reasons for our own (and other people’s) feelings and behaviour it becomes easier to hold these judgments in a lighter way. Our sense of righteousness loses its edge as we begin to understand that suffering, and the ways in which we try to protect ourselves from suffering, is at the heart of all human dysfunction.

Mindfulness is the ancient practice of paying attention to something without judging it. It is formally practiced in meditation sessions where you sit and pay attention to your breath, body, or thoughts, whilst cultivating an interested, non-judgmental attitude.

In the example I described above the therapist is applying this attitude of being interested without being judgemental when they sit with their client, and they are also encouraging the client to develop an attitude of this kind.

If the therapist has a formal mindfulness practice, where they regularly sit in meditation, they can cultivate this state of mind (also known as the ‘curious observer’) and take it into their work with clients.

In their own meditation sessions the therapist might also notice what triggers their own emotional reactions, and where their psychological blind-spots are. They can then be particularly careful in sessions if their client begins to talk about any issues which are triggers for their own material.

In their own meditation the therapist will also get some sense of how their own dysfunctions stem from old wounds, and develop an awareness that this is true for all of us.

When the therapist brings the ‘curious observer’ to their client work, the client will usually come to understand that the therapist is not interested in judging them but just interested in what is true so that it can be accepted or dealt with. In this way the therapist creates a safe space and makes it possible for the client to expose layers of truth which they would usually keep covered.

In time the client will usually start to learn how to do this for themselves. The client experiences the attitude that the therapist brings to their sessions and sees how helpful it is. In time, some of that attitude rubs off on them.

I think this process occurs in all forms of therapy. Even if a therapist doesn’t sit and practice mindfulness meditation, they will be cultivating the kind of attitude described here in their therapy practice, and some of this attitude will be transmitted to the client.

A therapist that understands mindfulness also has the option of using some of the theory and practice more explicitly with clients.

If a client is looking for techniques to help reduce anxiety, the therapist might teach a simple breathing meditation that the client can practice when they notice their anxiety increasing. When the client puts their attention on their breath, they are taking their mind away from whatever is triggering the anxiety and this can bring some immediate relief. If the client is interested in practicing further the therapist might encourage them to develop a more regular mindfulness of breathing practice, where the client can develop some skills in managing their anxiety. If they practice regularly they will also be developing a gentle noticing which will be invaluable in the therapy process. When the client has some experience in this, the therapist might then encourage them to start practicing watching their thoughts – in this way they move towards uncovering the roots of their anxiety.

A mindfulness practice can help all kinds of clients. Learning to be with what is true instead of pushing it away (as we often do) is a crucial part of the therapy process for all clients, and a regular formal practice where the client practices these skills can be a great support to the therapy process.

For people who are already practicing meditation, having a therapist to support this practice can be helpful. When someone sits in meditation and allows their mind to become still, this often reveals un-healed wounds. Perhaps they notice that they are distracted by the same thought over and over again, or a particularly difficult memory keeps drawing their attention, or they are swept away by a wave of feeling that they don’t understand.

We are resistant to change; we don’t want to admit that there is anything wrong with us, or that we might be contributing to our own suffering. We hold onto our anger and grief and stop ourselves from moving forwards. If we are meditating and begin to notice something that is outside our comfort zone – an unpleasant thought, for example – it is tempting to shy away from it, or to push it back underneath the carpet.

Most people have a strong idea of who they are, and anything that challenges this idea is likely to get pushed away. If you believe you are strong you will ignore any sign of weakness in you. If you are lacking in self-belief, you will ignore any hint of evidence of your own power. This process happens almost completely unconsciously, but it is often what stands between us and a more fulfilling life.

Being able to talk to a therapist about what comes up in your meditation practice can be helpful because the therapist will be able to accept those parts of us that we cannot accept ourselves.

In doing this, they show us that those parts of ourselves are true and that we don’t need to push them away. They are acceptable just as they are.

There is something very powerful about being in a space in which another person lends you their attention; it is as if our own ‘curious observer’ leans on the therapist’s ‘curious observer’ and steadies itself.

Together with your therapist you can start to explore what thoughts and feelings are coming up in your meditation, and how that might be affecting your daily life. As you understand and accept what is happening – what is true – you can start to move forwards in your practice and in your life in a more wholehearted way.

 Book a mindfulness one-to-one or  therapy session

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444, or click on the links below for more information.

Therapy with Kaspa

Mindfulness sessions with Kaspa

The Power of Non-Rejection or Coming to Wholeness

“If I don’t like it, it doesn’t exist.”

One of the most common ways of dealing with anything challenging is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. You come home huffing and puffing but claim to be fine when a friend asks you what’s up. Eventually you start to believe that you are fine. The general sense of dissatisfaction that you carry with you is ‘just how things are’, and nothing will change that.

The alternative would be to acknowledge what really happened to you that day you came home upset, but something in you feels like facing it would be a bad idea.

Or your boss criticises you but you don’t want to stand up for yourself because it feels too much like conflict and you have been burnt in the past. You tell yourself, I’m fine. Your boss keeps walking all over you and that’s ‘just the way things are’.

Or a really great opportunity opens up and part of you really wants to take it but something stops you because you are afraid of success, or afraid of being out of control. You miss the opportunity and say, I’m fine. You live with the sense of having missed out, and in those times when you’re not blaming others, you feel guilty that you didn’t take that great opportunity. You tell everyone you’re fine. It’s ‘just the way things are’.

When we ignore parts of our experience, we are living with one foot in the past.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the benefits of a meditation practice is coming to wholeness. We learn to be with the whole of life: to welcome all experiences, however difficult, so that we can deal with them and move forwards.

When you practice breathing mediation you are asked not to change the way that you breathe, but just to pay attention to your breath. Notice if it’s a short breath or a long breath, a shallow breath or a deep breath. Notice how long you pause for in between breaths.

In this way you are practicing being with what is true. In breathing meditation we’re just choosing to pay attention to one aspect of reality, and as our practice matures we begin to include other aspects too.

As well (or instead of) being aware of how you breathe, you might start to pay attention to the sensations in your body. Which muscles are tense today, and which are relaxed?

You might eventually move on to paying attention to your thoughts. A thought arises and you notice what it is without getting caught by it. You just notice the impulse to fantasise about buying a yacht, instead of following that impulse through and spending ten minutes deciding between different yachts in your mind.

The common thread in all of these practices is non-rejection. Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m breathing wrong!” you really pay attention to how you are breathing right now. Instead of thinking about what you are having for dinner in order to take your mind off the cramp in your leg when you are sitting in meditation, you just really notice the cramp in your leg.

Instead of shying away from the unpleasant thoughts in your mind you say, “Oh, that’s what I’m like… interesting.”

Mindfulness meditation gives us a great place to practice this attitude of non-rejecting, but in order to live a completely fulfilling life we must take this attitude off the mediation cushion and into our whole lives.

Instead of cutting off parts of our experience, we give our attention to them. We allow ourselves to notice what it was about that day that upset us so much.

Although ignoring what we don’t like might serve us well in the short term, if we do ignore parts of our experience we’re not really letting go or moving on and we end up living less than fulfilled lives.

When we allow ourselves to just notice what is real, we can start to deal with it.

Instead of pretending that everything is fine, we can say, “Yes, that happened. Now what?”

Seeing what is real in the world can bring up uncomfortable responses in us. We might really feel upset for the first time about that time our boss criticised us, (or guilty that we didn’t respond appropriately at the time). These uncomfortable feelings are natural responses to events and we can apply the same ‘just noticing’ mind to them as in our meditation practices.

As our practice matures, we become more able to experience the whole of the world, and more able to just notice our reactions without getting overwhelmed by them. From this spaciousness, we can then begin to deal with whatever we are presented with.

This is the real gift of mindfulness practice: creating space so that we slowly become comfortable with more and more of our experience. As we become more able to be with our whole experience it becomes easier to be at ease in each moment – to let go of what is holding us back and move forwards wholeheartedly.

Explore your mindfulness practice one-to-one?

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444.

The power of non-rejection or ‘coming to wholeness’

“If I don’t like it, it doesn’t exist.”

One of the most common ways of dealing with anything challenging is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. You come home huffing and puffing but claim to be fine when a friend asks you what’s up. Eventually you start to believe that you are fine. The general sense of dissatisfaction that you carry with you is ‘just how things are’, and nothing will change that.

The alternative would be to acknowledge what really happened to you that day you came home upset, but something in you feels like facing it would be a bad idea.

Or your boss criticises you but you don’t want to stand up for yourself because it feels too much like conflict and you have been burnt in the past. You tell yourself, I’m fine. Your boss keeps walking all over you and that’s ‘just the way things are’.

Or a really great opportunity opens up and part of you really wants to take it but something stops you because you are afraid of success, or afraid of being out of control. You miss the opportunity and say, I’m fine. You live with the sense of having missed out, and in those times when you’re not blaming others, you feel guilty that you didn’t take that great opportunity. You tell everyone you’re fine. It’s ‘just the way things are’.

When we ignore parts of our experience, we are living with one foot in the past.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the benefits of a meditation practice is coming to wholeness. We learn to be with the whole of life: to welcome all experiences, however difficult, so that we can deal with them and move forwards.

When you practice breathing mediation you are asked not to change the way that you breathe, but just to pay attention to your breath. Notice if it’s a short breath or a long breath, a shallow breath or a deep breath. Notice how long you pause for in between breaths.

In this way you are practicing being with what is true. In breathing meditation we’re just choosing to pay attention to one aspect of reality, and as our practice matures we begin to include other aspects too.

As well (or instead of) being aware of how you breathe, you might start to pay attention to the sensations in your body. Which muscles are tense today, and which are relaxed?

You might eventually move on to paying attention to your thoughts. A thought arises and you notice what it is without getting caught by it. You just notice the impulse to fantasise about buying a yacht, instead of following that impulse through and spending ten minutes deciding between different yachts in your mind.

The common thread in all of these practices is non-rejection. Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m breathing wrong!” you really pay attention to how you are breathing right now. Instead of thinking about what you are having for dinner in order to take your mind off the cramp in your leg when you are sitting in meditation, you just really notice the cramp in your leg.

Instead of shying away from the unpleasant thoughts in your mind you say, “Oh, that’s what I’m like… interesting.”

Mindfulness meditation gives us a great place to practice this attitude of non-rejecting, but in order to live a completely fulfilling life we must take this attitude off the mediation cushion and into our whole lives.

Instead of cutting off parts of our experience, we give our attention to them. We allow ourselves to notice what it was about that day that upset us so much.

Although ignoring what we don’t like might serve us well in the short term, if we do ignore parts of our experience we’re not really letting go or moving on and we end up living less than fulfilled lives.

When we allow ourselves to just notice what is real, we can start to deal with it.

Instead of pretending that everything is fine, we can say, “Yes, that happened. Now what?”

Seeing what is real in the world can bring up uncomfortable responses in us. We might really feel upset for the first time about that time our boss criticised us, (or guilty that we didn’t respond appropriately at the time). These uncomfortable feelings are natural responses to events and we can apply the same ‘just noticing’ mind to them as in our meditation practices.

As our practice matures, we become more able to experience the whole of the world, and more able to just notice our reactions without getting overwhelmed by them. From this spaciousness, we can then begin to deal with whatever we are presented with.

This is the real gift of mindfulness practice: creating space so that we slowly become comfortable with more and more of our experience. As we become more able to be with our whole experience it becomes easier to be at ease in each moment – to let go of what is holding us back and move forwards wholeheartedly.

Explore your mindfulness practice one-to-one?

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444.

Mindfulness of Breathing Instructions

In mindfulness of breathing the aim is to put your attention on the sensations involved in breathing.

This practice can bring some measure of calm: instead of letting your thoughts run away with themselves (as they often do) we focus on something real. Mindfulness of breathing is a valuable practice in itself, and it is also a good preparatory practice for other kinds of meditation.

In my experience the most benefit comes with a regular practice: little and often is better than one long session a week. Even a daily five minute practice done can bring benefits.  As you get more experience you should aim to sit for 15-20 minutes each time. I think it is good to practice to sit at the same time each day, I recommend either first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. Experiment at different times and see what works for you.

It’s good to make a commitment to a number of sessions; this gives you a real chance to get to know the practice. Perhaps you will decide to practice every day this week, or every week-day for the next few weeks.

The meditation

Find somewhere to sit where you won’t be disturbed.

Decide how long you are going to sit for. I use a mobile phone app called  ‘Zen Timer’ to help me sit for the right amount of time, you might choose to set an alarm (nothing too noisy), or just have a clock nearby that you can glance at.

Sit down. There are formal mediation postures you can use, but the important thing is to sit comfortably in a stable position, with a natural curve to your back. Find a position that you can sit in easily for the length of the meditation.

Some people like to practice with their eyes closed, but if you do this when you are tired there is a danger that you will fall asleep. Try sitting with your eyes half closed, or even completely open. If you would like to sit with your eyes open, find something neutral to look at like a plain wall.

Begin to notice how you are breathing. Notice how the air enters and leaves your body, and how the shape of your body changes with each breath. Don’t try to change how you are breathing, just notice what’s going on. If you take a long breath, just notice it’s a long breath. If you take a short breath, just notice it’s a short breath.

When your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the sensation of your breathing. It’s quite normal to get distracted many, many times.

Just keep noticing the breath.

Practice regularly, and see where it leads.

Explore your mindfulness practice one-to-one?

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444.

Mindfulness of Breathing Instructions

In mindfulness of breathing the aim is to put your attention on the sensations involved in breathing.

This practice can bring some measure of calm: instead of letting your thoughts run away with themselves (as they often do) we focus on something real. Mindfulness of breathing is a valuable practice in itself, and it is also a good preparatory practice for other kinds of meditation.

In my experience the most benefit comes with a regular practice: little and often is better than one long session a week. Even a daily five minute practice done can bring benefits.  As you get more experience you should aim to sit for 15-20 minutes each time. I think it is good to practice to sit at the same time each day, I recommend either first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. Experiment at different times and see what works for you.

It’s good to make a commitment to a number of sessions; this gives you a real chance to get to know the practice. Perhaps you will decide to practice every day this week, or every week-day for the next few weeks.

The meditation

Find somewhere to sit where you won’t be disturbed.

Decide how long you are going to sit for. I use a mobile phone app called  ‘Zen Timer’ to help me sit for the right amount of time, you might choose to set an alarm (nothing too noisy), or just have a clock nearby that you can glance at.

Sit down. There are formal mediation postures you can use, but the important thing is to sit comfortably in a stable position, with a natural curve to your back. Find a position that you can sit in easily for the length of the meditation.

Some people like to practice with their eyes closed, but if you do this when you are tired there is a danger that you will fall asleep. Try sitting with your eyes half closed, or even completely open. If you would like to sit with your eyes open, find something neutral to look at like a plain wall.

Begin to notice how you are breathing. Notice how the air enters and leaves your body, and how the shape of your body changes with each breath. Don’t try to change how you are breathing, just notice what’s going on. If you take a long breath, just notice it’s a long breath. If you take a short breath, just notice it’s a short breath.

When your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the sensation of your breathing. It’s quite normal to get distracted many, many times.

Just keep noticing the breath.

Practice regularly, and see where it leads.

Explore your mindfulness practice one-to-one?

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice has become popular in the last few years; it can bring great benefits, so I understand why people are so interested in using it. I also wonder if its popularity points to how many people are dissatisfied with their lives. These practices can lead to a deep sense of peace, to being more engaged in the world, and to feeling more fulfilled.

The word ‘mindfulness’ means something like ‘attention’ or ‘awareness’.

It is the practice of making a conscious decision about what we give our attention to.

Usually our minds are full of thoughts. We remember an argument at work and we replay it in our minds until it comes out the way we’d like, or we start planning our shopping trip, or worrying about how we’re going to clear out the loft. You might have heard the term monkey-mind to describe this ordinary state of mind. Our thoughts jump from one branch to another, like a monkey searching for a perfect banana.

In this state of mind our attention is on these fantasies about the past and the future.  Our focus is on these stories in such a way that we respond as if they were real, even though they are the creations of our minds.

When we put our attention on something else (our breathing, for example) we step outside these monkey-mind thoughts. No longer pulled about by these thoughts, our minds become calmer.

One of the primary sources of mindfulness practice is the Buddhist text the Satipatthana Sutta, still a useful guide to practice today.

Satipatthana means something like ‘foundation of mindfulness’ and in it the Buddha describes different kinds of practices, beginning with mindfulness of breathing.

The Buddha gives very clear meditation instructions for this practice, “When you take a long breath” he says, “be aware that you are taking a long breath. When you take a short breath, be aware that you are taking a short breath.”

Mindfulness of breathing is one of the most popularly taught and practiced meditations today. It can bring some of that calm I mentioned earlier – in fact the Buddha goes on to suggest that you might also want to think, “Calming the activity of the body I breathe in” and, “calming the activity of body I breathe out.” This is good advice, particularly if we are having trouble sitting still in our meditation.

As well as the calmness that comes from escaping our monkey-mind, we can also learn something about our own nature from following our breathing.

One of the most powerful lessons following the breath can teach us is how dependent we are upon the world. In a society which celebrates self-reliance it is easy to believe that we are completely responsible for the shape of our own lives. We make our own choices and we live or die by them.

Our choices do have a powerful effect on our lives, but we are far from completely in control. As we follow the breath we become aware that we have not created the air we are breathing. We might also become aware that the air we are breathing has been recycled many, many times. This might lead us to reflect on our own lives in this way – how our existence is the result of a string of direct and indirect causes and conditions.  For example, our ancestors needed to meet each other at just the right time to have their children and so on down the generations until we get to our own parents, or think the of numerous other events that happen by chance, or through other people’s power, that have led us to this place in our life.

As well as these two benefits, a sense of peace and some insight about our existence, mindfulness of breathing can also create a space in which other more hidden thoughts and feelings can float to the surface of our minds. Part of what drives our monkey-mind is an aversion to what is painful; the frenetic thoughts cover up deeper wounds. When our monkey-minds become more peaceful we might start to notice some of these hidden thoughts and feelings.

This isn’t always what people beginning meditation want to hear, but this process is often a good thing. These thoughts and feelings are wounds that haven’t healed properly in the past (if they had completely healed we wouldn’t notice them) and giving them some air gives them the chance to heal properly.

This is one place therapy can help – if the wounds are particularly deep or painful, having another person to accompany you on your healing process is invaluable.

According to the Satipatthana Sutta, at this stage of the mindfulness practice we are not supposed to do anything with these deeper feelings that are exposed, just return our attention to the breath.

This is pretty good advice: notice that these wounds are there, but don’t do anything with them just yet.

After mindfulness of breathing the Buddha goes on to describe other kinds of mindfulness of body practices. We are encouraged to practise being aware of how we hold our bodies, to reflect on the make-up of our bodies and to go and sit in a graveyard and think about impermanence.  These practices are designed to bring specific insights about the human condition. In a similar way to noticing our dependence on air, we see how our body is composed of elements that have existed since the beginning of time and that we have not created, and we also begin to come to terms with the fragility of life.

In this section the Buddha also gives some teaching on taking mindfulness away from our meditation cushion and into everyday life.  He describes the attitude one should  have when dressing in the morning, or when washing a bowl. In either case the attitude is the same – give your attention wholly to what you are engaged in.  Step out of the monkey-mind and completely give yourself to the activity.

The benefits of this practice are two-fold. We are stepping outside our stories about the world and putting our attention onto something real (the clothes we are wearing, the bowl we are washing). Not inhabiting our usual fantasies can bring a similar calm to that which we find in breathing meditation. The second benefit is that we are much more likely to do whatever it is we are doing well. We choose colours that go together instead of picking up something from the crumpled heap of clothes in the corner of the bedroom. We make sure the bowl is really clean before moving onto the next dish.

Once we have done some mindfulness of breathing, and some mindfulness of the body, and some mindfulness in our daily life, the Buddha then suggests we turn our attention inwards.

There are two traps that we can fall into when we turn our attention to our thoughts. The first is that we become seduced by them and quickly fall back into the monkey-mind. The second is that as soon as we see what we are thinking we begin to judge ourselves, “What terrible crazy thoughts I have!” or even, “What profound thoughts I have!” We should apply the same method of just noticing without judging that we learnt in mindfulness of breathing here too. We are aiming to be aware of what thoughts are appearing, without being caught by them.

When we can maintain this sort of awareness we notice the monkey-mind without acting from it, and without being trapped it in. Because we are not adding energy to our thoughts as we usually do, when we simply watch them appearing, they will often disappear in their own time. We are then able to act from a place that is clearer, that is less frenetic or confused.

Another benefit is that as we watch our thoughts we can consider where they are coming from; we can ask, “What lies beneath this thought?” In this way we can gain some understanding of how our mind works: as our body is composed of elements that have existed since the beginning of time, so our thoughts appear from other causes and conditions.

Let’s look an example of that process: I notice I am thinking about that umbrella I lost years ago. Where did that thought come? I realise that I’ve just heard a weather forecast on the radio, which triggered the thoughts about umbrellas. But why did I start thinking about the weather forecast and my lost umbrella, when I didn’t even notice the news bulletin earlier? Perhaps it’s because I have been worried about getting all my gardening jobs done. There is some connection to the weather (do I really want to garden in the rain?) and also to how organised I am, or unorganised, like that time I lost the umbrella. In this way I can see that my thoughts were triggered by both external conditions (hearing the weather forecast) and internal conditions (my past experience of losing the umbrella). Perhaps the result of noticing these thoughts is that I can make a plan to complete my gardening jobs, rather than worrying about them, or decide that as long as I’m wearing the right clothes it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. Either way I have moved forward.

As we become mindful of our thoughts we gain some understanding of how all minds work; that all of our thoughts appear from a complex set of conditions. We also gain some understanding of how our own mind specifically works; just what is it that drives us?

Now we have some experience in these different areas of practices (mindfulness of breathing, of our bodies, in daily tasks, and of thoughts) we might also give some space to thinking about any deeper wounds we have uncovered – what lies beneath them? This is where having a therapist or spiritual friend can be a great help. Not only are we easily caught by our old thought patterns and slip back into the monkey-mind, but giving attention to our thoughts can often provoke intense emotions that we feel unable to cope with on our own. If we have a therapist or spiritual friend alongside us we can borrow some of their steadiness in the face of all this.

It is also true that we are resistant to change and that we close our eyes to our worst thoughts and feelings. A therapist can stand beside us and just notice without judging, even when you are unable to do this yourself, and a therapist can make connections and observations about your thought patterns that are harder to spot from the inside.

Noticing these thought patterns, and dealing with anything we need to as a result, can bring a deep sense of peace. In the example above I am able to let the worry go because I am doing something about it (or perhaps I realise that the gardening can wait, which also relives the worry). Even just exposing these thoughts can bring some relief, as we expend less energy in trying to hide from them.

Finally, in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha asks you to give your attention to his teachings on living a meaningful life. These teachings can move you towards a deep sense of being at ease in the world, and towards being actively compassionate in the world.  In the text he outlines some of these teachings, finishing with the Four Noble Truths. These teachings could form the syllabus for a lifetime’s study, and I don’t want to enter into the detail of them here. If you would like to read a good exposition of the Four Noble Truths I recommend David Brazier’s ‘The Feeling Buddha’.

The important point to note here is that the pinnacle of mindfulness practice is a teaching about how to be compassionate in the world. The Four Noble Truths ask us to face the whole world, including the vast suffering we find there, and respond with wisdom and compassion. This is the ultimate path for a peaceful life.

This means being able to face the suffering in the world with equanimity, and to face the suffering inside each of us with equanimity.

What disturbs this equanimity is the monkey-mind, the mind that races frenetically (or that refuses to respond at all), which covers up the deeper wounds we have suffered and held on to. The path of mindfulness leads us away from this selfish mind and into a more open and honest way of being in the world.

As we take each step on the path, from practicing mindfulness of breathing, to washing our bowls with mindfulness, we can find new depths of peace.  Mindfulness of breathing can be the first step on the road towards living a much fuller and more satisfying life.

For instructions on mindfulness of breathing see:  Mindfulness of Breathing

Kaspalita (Kaspa) Thompson

May 2013

 

Explore your mindfulness practice one-to-one or book a therapy session

Book a session with Kaspa via Skype or in person. Email kaspa@thebuddhisttherapist.com to book a session, or call 07946 715 730 or 01684 572 444.

 

What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness practice has become popular in the last few years; it can bring great benefits, so I understand why people are so interested in using it. I also wonder if its popularity points to how many people are dissatisfied with their lives. These practices can lead to a deep sense of peace, to being more engaged in the world, and to feeling more fulfilled.

The word ‘mindfulness’ means something like ‘attention’ or ‘awareness’.

It is the practice of making a conscious decision about what we give our attention to.

Usually our minds are full of thoughts. We remember an argument at work and we replay it in our minds until it comes out the way we’d like, or we start planning our shopping trip, or worrying about how we’re going to clear out the loft. You might have heard the term monkey-mind to describe this ordinary state of mind. Our thoughts jump from one branch to another, like a monkey searching for a perfect banana.

In this state of mind our attention is on these fantasies about the past and the future.  Our focus is on these stories in such a way that we respond as if they were real, even though they are the creations of our minds.

When we put our attention on something else (our breathing, for example) we step outside these monkey-mind thoughts. No longer pulled about by these thoughts, our minds become calmer.

One of the primary sources of mindfulness practice is the Buddhist text the Satipatthana Sutta, still a useful guide to practice today.

Satipatthana means something like ‘foundation of mindfulness’ and in it the Buddha describes different kinds of practices, beginning with mindfulness of breathing.

The Buddha gives very clear meditation instructions for this practice, “When you take a long breath” he says, “be aware that you are taking a long breath. When you take a short breath, be aware that you are taking a short breath.”

Mindfulness of breathing is one of the most popularly taught and practiced meditations today. It can bring some of that calm I mentioned earlier – in fact the Buddha goes on to suggest that you might also want to think, “Calming the activity of the body I breathe in” and, “calming the activity of body I breathe out.” This is good advice, particularly if we are having trouble sitting still in our meditation.

As well as the calmness that comes from escaping our monkey-mind, we can also learn something about our own nature from following our breathing.

One of the most powerful lessons following the breath can teach us is how dependent we are upon the world. In a society which celebrates self-reliance it is easy to believe that we are completely responsible for the shape of our own lives. We make our own choices and we live or die by them.

Our choices do have a powerful effect on our lives, but we are far from completely in control. As we follow the breath we become aware that we have not created the air we are breathing. We might also become aware that the air we are breathing has been recycled many, many times. This might lead us to reflect on our own lives in this way – how our existence is the result of a string of direct and indirect causes and conditions.  For example, our ancestors needed to meet each other at just the right time to have their children and so on down the generations until we get to our own parents, or think the of numerous other events that happen by chance, or through other people’s power, that have led us to this place in our life.

As well as these two benefits, a sense of peace and some insight about our existence, mindfulness of breathing can also create a space in which other more hidden thoughts and feelings can float to the surface of our minds. Part of what drives our monkey-mind is an aversion to what is painful; the frenetic thoughts cover up deeper wounds. When our monkey-minds become more peaceful we might start to notice some of these hidden thoughts and feelings.

This isn’t always what people beginning meditation want to hear, but this process is often a good thing. These thoughts and feelings are wounds that haven’t healed properly in the past (if they had completely healed we wouldn’t notice them) and giving them some air gives them the chance to heal properly.

This is one place therapy can help – if the wounds are particularly deep or painful, having another person to accompany you on your healing process is invaluable.

According to the Satipatthana Sutta, at this stage of the mindfulness practice we are not supposed to do anything with these deeper feelings that are exposed, just return our attention to the breath.

This is pretty good advice: notice that these wounds are there, but don’t do anything with them just yet.

After mindfulness of breathing the Buddha goes on to describe other kinds of mindfulness of body practices. We are encouraged to practise being aware of how we hold our bodies, to reflect on the make-up of our bodies and to go and sit in a graveyard and think about impermanence.  These practices are designed to bring specific insights about the human condition. In a similar way to noticing our dependence on air, we see how our body is composed of elements that have existed since the beginning of time and that we have not created, and we also begin to come to terms with the fragility of life.

In this section the Buddha also gives some teaching on taking mindfulness away from our meditation cushion and into everyday life.  He describes the attitude one should  have when dressing in the morning, or when washing a bowl. In either case the attitude is the same – give your attention wholly to what you are engaged in.  Step out of the monkey-mind and completely give yourself to the activity.

The benefits of this practice are two-fold. We are stepping outside our stories about the world and putting our attention onto something real (the clothes we are wearing, the bowl we are washing). Not inhabiting our usual fantasies can bring a similar calm to that which we find in breathing meditation. The second benefit is that we are much more likely to do whatever it is we are doing well. We choose colours that go together instead of picking up something from the crumpled heap of clothes in the corner of the bedroom. We make sure the bowl is really clean before moving onto the next dish.

Once we have done some mindfulness of breathing, and some mindfulness of the body, and some mindfulness in our daily life, the Buddha then suggests we turn our attention inwards.

There are two traps that we can fall into when we turn our attention to our thoughts. The first is that we become seduced by them and quickly fall back into the monkey-mind. The second is that as soon as we see what we are thinking we begin to judge ourselves, “What terrible crazy thoughts I have!” or even, “What profound thoughts I have!” We should apply the same method of just noticing without judging that we learnt in mindfulness of breathing here too. We are aiming to be aware of what thoughts are appearing, without being caught by them.

When we can maintain this sort of awareness we notice the monkey-mind without acting from it, and without being trapped it in. Because we are not adding energy to our thoughts as we usually do, when we simply watch them appearing, they will often disappear in their own time. We are then able to act from a place that is clearer, that is less frenetic or confused.

Another benefit is that as we watch our thoughts we can consider where they are coming from; we can ask, “What lies beneath this thought?” In this way we can gain some understanding of how our mind works: as our body is composed of elements that have existed since the beginning of time, so our thoughts appear from other causes and conditions.

Let’s look an example of that process: I notice I am thinking about that umbrella I lost years ago. Where did that thought come? I realise that I’ve just heard a weather forecast on the radio, which triggered the thoughts about umbrellas. But why did I start thinking about the weather forecast and my lost umbrella, when I didn’t even notice the news bulletin earlier? Perhaps it’s because I have been worried about getting all my gardening jobs done. There is some connection to the weather (do I really want to garden in the rain?) and also to how organised I am, or unorganised, like that time I lost the umbrella. In this way I can see that my thoughts were triggered by both external conditions (hearing the weather forecast) and internal conditions (my past experience of losing the umbrella). Perhaps the result of noticing these thoughts is that I can make a plan to complete my gardening jobs, rather than worrying about them, or decide that as long as I’m wearing the right clothes it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. Either way I have moved forward.

As we become mindful of our thoughts we gain some understanding of how all minds work; that all of our thoughts appear from a complex set of conditions. We also gain some understanding of how our own mind specifically works; just what is it that drives us?

Now we have some experience in these different areas of practices (mindfulness of breathing, of our bodies, in daily tasks, and of thoughts) we might also give some space to thinking about any deeper wounds we have uncovered – what lies beneath them? This is where having a therapist or spiritual friend can be a great help. Not only are we easily caught by our old thought patterns and slip back into the monkey-mind, but giving attention to our thoughts can often provoke intense emotions that we feel unable to cope with on our own. If we have a therapist or spiritual friend alongside us we can borrow some of their steadiness in the face of all this.

It is also true that we are resistant to change and that we close our eyes to our worst thoughts and feelings. A therapist can stand beside us and just notice without judging, even when you are unable to do this yourself, and a therapist can make connections and observations about your thought patterns that are harder to spot from the inside.

Noticing these thought patterns, and dealing with anything we need to as a result, can bring a deep sense of peace. In the example above I am able to let the worry go because I am doing something about it (or perhaps I realise that the gardening can wait, which also relives the worry). Even just exposing these thoughts can bring some relief, as we expend less energy in trying to hide from them.

Finally, in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha asks you to give your attention to his teachings on living a meaningful life. These teachings can move you towards a deep sense of being at ease in the world, and towards being actively compassionate in the world.  In the text he outlines some of these teachings, finishing with the Four Noble Truths. These teachings could form the syllabus for a lifetime’s study, and I don’t want to enter into the detail of them here. If you would like to read a good exposition of the Four Noble Truths I recommend David Brazier’s ‘The Feeling Buddha’.

The important point to note here is that the pinnacle of mindfulness practice is a teaching about how to be compassionate in the world. The Four Noble Truths ask us to face the whole world, including the vast suffering we find there, and respond with wisdom and compassion. This is the ultimate path for a peaceful life.

This means being able to face the suffering in the world with equanimity, and to face the suffering inside each of us with equanimity.

What disturbs this equanimity is the monkey-mind, the mind that races frenetically (or that refuses to respond at all), which covers up the deeper wounds we have suffered and held on to. The path of mindfulness leads us away from this selfish mind and into a more open and honest way of being in the world.

As we take each step on the path, from practicing mindfulness of breathing, to washing our bowls with mindfulness, we can find new depths of peace.  Mindfulness of breathing can be the first step on the road towards living a much fuller and more satisfying life.

For instructions on mindfulness of breathing see:  Mindfulness of Breathing

Kaspalita (Kaspa) Thompson

May 2013

 

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