Lifestyle Health

Saturday 18 November 2017

My story of mindfulness

As we age, it becomes easier to declutter our minds and focus on essentials, Anne Alcock writes

Anne Alcock believes that there is wisdom in ‘doing’ and ‘having’ a little less. Photo: Clare Keogh
Anne Alcock believes that there is wisdom in ‘doing’ and ‘having’ a little less. Photo: Clare Keogh

Anne Alcock

'Drop your shoulders!" "Drop my shoulders? What are you talking about?"I was staring at my friend, a nurse, who had just made this ridiculous suggestion.

"No, I'm serious. Take a deep breath, lift your shoulders as high as your ears, and then let them drop. Gently!"

Sometimes it helps to believe your friends, and the tension in those shoulder muscles made me obey.

That was 40 years ago, at the very end of my college years, and my first introduction to what we now know as "mindfulness".

Two teachers from opposite sides of the world, have been foundational in raising mindful awareness in the West.

The first, a Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, came to our attention with the publication of his letter to young peace workers struggling to remain calm and non-judgmental in post-war Vietnam.

Exiled to France for his work as a peace advocate, Thich Nhat Hanh outlined the principles and practices of mindful compassion in the midst of chaos.

"Joy and peace are the joy and peace possible in this very hour of sitting. If you cannot find it here, you won't find it anywhere. Don't chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don't run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment."

Now a classic, 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' is written in a deceptively simple, even playful style.

The second person long associated with mindfulness, and working from a clinical perspective, is Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor emeritus, and researcher into chronic pain and body-mind interactions, he is founder of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts.

In 1992, he and his colleagues set up a Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction programme (MBSR) in Worcester, Massachusetts. This programme is now available worldwide. Participants in Ireland whom I have asked, say that over the eight sessions, they felt calmer and more focused. They had practised being mindful in ordinary day to day activities; eating mouthful by mouthful and walking more slowly with senses awake. Above all, they learned full-body relaxation. "Relaxation is the point of departure," says Kabat-Zinn.

So, is that it? Just connecting mindfully with one's own life, as it is? No other secret ingredient or key skill? "Many paths can lead to understanding and wisdom," says Kabat-Zinn. Although trained in Zen himself, he believes that the relevance of mindfulness for our present day "has nothing to do with Buddhism per se, but it has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with oneself and with the world".

"Fundamentally," he says, "mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

"This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives, but also fail to realise the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation."

So herein lies the challenge. My experience with clients, friends and myself, is that we do not easily, or always, inhabit our present reality. We may be present in body, but absent of mind. This became clear to me when I found myself taking an after-lunch stroll in pleasant gardens. There was I, pacing mindfully amidst the shaded green of grass and trees. But where was my head? Many miles away, on the roof of my house, with my mind working away, wondering anxiously whether a roofer had managed to fix some loose tiles. (He hadn't). So much for my practice of mindfulness. But it was a telling insight about how easy it is to disconnect mind from body; to be dragged back into the emotional skirmishes of yesterday, or propelled into the problems of next week.

Kabat-Zinn writes as a Western clinician and Thich Nhat Hanh as an Eastern contemplative monk. Both present their own tried and tested means of coming back from distraction, back to that place of awareness and attention indicated above.

Thich Nhat Hanh's approach easily blends the profound with the prosaic. He engagingly tells us of the ways in which mindfulness-as-peace inhabits every aspect of life, from talking with chatty friends, to walking alone in the often unnoticed beauties of nature. He also takes us on a tour through every room in our house. "When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life" he writes. "Just as when you are drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you are using the toilet, let that be the most important thing in your life. And so on. Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. Be mindful 24 hours a day, not just during the one hour you may allot for formal meditation, or reading Scripture, or reciting prayers. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. Does the word "rite" seem too solemn? I use the word to jolt you into the realisation of the life-and-death matter of awareness."

We need to be ready to hear this, and the ubiquity of "mindfulness" in our present society indicates that this has begun to happen.

At my age, (67) mindful-living fits naturally as a skill alongside my personal beliefs and practices. Becoming more comfortable with our mortality, we can begin to clear our clutter – mental and physical, focus on the essentials, accept our real "life and death issues and look upon ourselves and others with a new compassion. Ultimately we come back to the word which of course Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn both use. Wisdom. Instinctively, we all know that there is wisdom in "doing" and "having" a little less, while "being" and "appreciating" a little more.

As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: "Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile" Or you could always try a more qualified, but hopefully still truthful phrase: "Breathing out – I'm here."

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