Treat every moment as your last

A friend of mine recently mentioned he’d re-watched the movie Groundhog Day, and it felt incredibly familiar to life now, at least for him. But I totally got what he meant, each day is so similar to the next at the moment!

This is what he said, how does it land with you?

Not much happens differently in the external dimension. 

But there is also the internal dimension. In Zen, they talk about a beginner’s mind, seeing the ordinary in a new way. Even if what we see is the same, the way we see can change. 

The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi liked to say,“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”

It made me think, “If we live this time as if it was our last, not as preparation for something else, what might we learn?” 

In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character eventually learns from the monotony to be increasingly open-hearted and selfless. He takes a new approach to his ordinary days. 

Maybe this is what we can do in this time. We can bring a beginner’s mind to each day, and see beyond our limited self orientation.

Brother David Steindl-Rast may have done this the best in the exquisite video called A Good Day. If you have not seen it, it is worth a watch. He suggests gratefulness is the key to fully living each day. 

As we continue to quarantine and be as safe as possible, may we each find a way to engage, freshly. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh liked to remind us, The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

May this day in your life, today, not just be another day.

May your day be well lived. 

I love Soren’s thinking here, and Brother David’s video. They both remind us that life offers our attention a truly amazing experience every single minute. We just have to remember to calm the busy mind, pause, and reconnect with it – our life unfolding in this moment.

Soren and the Wisdom 2.0 team have some wonderful meetup’s planned which you might be interested in. Click here.

If you’d like to bring more mindfulness into your life you might like to join our next MBSR course. Arrange a free discovery session to find out what the course involves. If it appeals, we’ll book you on. If not, no worries. Click here for more info.

The Power of Mindfulness

Whenever I introduce myself to a new mindfulness course I include a little background about the journey that led me to become a teacher. There’s one point in time that stands out as a catalyst – 5th May 1984.

This is the day I sustained a spinal cord injury and was paralysed from the waist down. It was an unlucky fall and in the blink of an eye I was in hospital in a haze of sedation with a doctor telling me “I’m sorry Mr Barnes but you’ve broken your back and you’re never going to walk again!”

This is a traumatic, life changing event and naturally I was devastated, but I soon noticed people with injuries more serious than mine. A guy in the bed next to me, Laurence, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and couldn’t move a muscle. Rather than thinking about what I didn’t have, I started to appreciate what I did have!

During rehabilitation my aim was to do the best I could, and even though difficulties were rife, I didn’t get caught up on them. I looked for a way around obstacles and kept moving. Essentially, this is how I managed the transition. Without realising it I was being mindful. I acknowledged problems when they arose, but didn’t get caught up in them. I embraced what I did have and lived life.

This is the power of mindfulness, and it’s something we all do at times. We just don’t necessarily realise it. This is why it’s important to develop a regular practice and incorporate it into our daily lives. To be mindful intentionally.

Like all worthwhile activities, if we want the rewards we have to put in the effort. No one becomes a guitarist, for example, without a lot of practice, and it’s the same with mindfulness. Dedicating just 30 minutes of your day to mindful meditation will help you to slow down the mind and be in control of the choices you make, rather than unconsciously reacting on autopilot.

Believe me, it’s really helpful to be consciously aware of all the options available to you in challenging and stressful situations. Which is not about making stress go away, it’s more a question of choosing not to freak out about thoughts of the past or the future. Instead, we consider what’s real, what’s happening in the present moment, and to the best of our ability, choose the best way forward. Isn’t this the only way?

Here’s a great Ted Talk which explains this wonderfully. It’s entitled The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger with Shauna Shapiro.

The Spirit of Activism

Common Sense for the 21st Century

I recently attended a 5-day Spirit of Activism retreat at Embercombe, Devon, because I felt a need to connect more deeply with the climate crisis. Wow! did I connect!

Embercombe is an amazing place, situated on a hill in lush, wooded countryside, not far from Exeter. It has a pretty amazing story behind it too, focused very much around the founder, Mac Macartney, and his passion for Mother Nature. In fact, it was Mac’s inspiring talk at Shambala this year that tuned me and Suzi into the wonderful work being done at Embercombe. Have a look on their website, you might just find something that calls you.

The reason this particular retreat called out to me is that for some time I’ve felt confusion about what’s going on in the world today, and how I’m responding to it. Or more to the point, what I’m not doing!

Sure, I’m mindful of recycling household waste, turning off lights when not needed etc. but there was a nagging feeling that, while important, these actions were superficial. In my heartmind I know there’s more serious work to be done. But what? And how do I engage?

It didn’t take long for the retreat to start revealing the answers for me. Throughout the retreat we were blessed to have two amazing teachers guide us through some deep, personal, exploration. Space was made for us all to step into vulnerability and release our truth.

It was overwhelming to witness fellow retreatants express themselves in the truth circle. I sobbed readily at the sight and sound of another’s grief, sorrow, helplessness, and anger. Before I knew it I found myself in the circle connecting with my inner truth, hardly able to get the words out through the tears.

There were many tears, but also a lot of positive work on moving forward, much of which is based on the wonderful Joanna Macy’s books Coming Back to Life and The Great Turning.

All in all, it was a great retreat, emotionally exhausting, but uplifting and motivating too. One of the first things I did on my return home was to read Roget Hallam’s booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century. If you want to understand the big plan and vision behind XR’s actions to stop climate breakdown and social collapse then read this. It’s really important.

I see now know it’s my moral duty to join the climate fight. I will do whatever I can, whenever I can.

From this moment the despair ends!

See you on the streets.

Letting Go

I’ve noticed a lot of angst and frustration lurking around recently. May be it’s the failure of modern politics, austerity, or the climate crisis. It could just be the stress of holding ourselves together in modern times. Whatever’s going on, a lot of us are struggling under the pressure.

We experience numerous disappointments each and every day. Our expectations go unmet, our plans are blocked by circumstance, our wishes go unfulfilled, and we discover that our lives are subject to a myriad of forces beyond our conscious control. In some cases, our response is powerful because we must invest ourselves and our resources to overcome genuine hardship. In others, our reactions are far more passionate than our circumstances likely warrant. The tension that permeates our bodies and minds when we are late for an event, interrupted at work, or sitting in traffic is not inappropriate, but it can interfere with our well-being in profound ways. When we stop worrying about relatively unimportant matters, we can be at peace and devote so much more of ourselves to what is truly important. 

The small frustrations and irritations wield such power over us because they rob us of the illusion of control. But every problem is a potential teacher – a confusing situation is an opportunity to practice mindfulness, and difficult people provide us with opportunities to display compassion. There is a natural human tendency to invest copious amounts of emotional energy in dilemmas and frustrations because that’s how the brain is wired, it analyses everything to find a route out of the perceived danger. The problem is that often the issue is emotion-based and there isn’t an escape route. We just have to accept that sometimes we feel upset, angry, or stressed, and trust that these moments will pass, just like all the other times in our lives that we’ve been in a similar situation. When we let go we discover that it’s not really so devastating after all. 

In the stress of a tense incident, differentiating between an inconsequential annoyance and a legitimate challenge can seem a monumental task. Ask yourself whether the emotions you are feeling will be as vivid in a year, a day, or even an hour. As focused as you are on this moment in time, your reward for letting go of your emotional investment may be the very happiness and harmony of being whose loss you are lamenting. Needless aggravation is seldom worth the cost it exacts. You cannot distance yourself from life’s inconsistencies, irritations, and upheavals, but you can relinquish your desire for perfect order and gain peace of mind in the process.

Breaking Bread Together

I’ve just shared a beautiful weekend with family in a medieval barn in Brecon and it reminded me how much of the important things we miss if we don’t remember to slow the mind down and pay attention to what’s happening around us. It was an amazing few days and I’m still glowing inside.

This lovely piece by Madison Taylor captures it very well…

As we rush to keep up with the speed of our busy lives, one of the first activities we tend to sacrifice is the sharing of a meal with other people. We may find ourselves eating alone at the kitchen counter or hurriedly drinking a cup of soup while driving in our cars. Yet taking the time to share a meal with family or a close friend not only feeds your body, but also it can nourish your soul. Companionship can fill the heart the way warm stew can satisfy your belly. Eating a meal with others allows you to slow down, while nurturing your relationships. 

Breaking bread with others can be treated like a ritual where the gestures of sharing and togetherness are just as important as the food you eat. Planning, preparing, and consuming a meal are all stepping off points toward good conversation, bonding, and learning about someone else. Inviting a new acquaintance to share a meal can be the start of a wonderful friendship. A shared breakfast can be a brainstorming session between coworkers, or it can set the tone for a positive day for family members. Lunch with a friend can be a welcome break from the day’s stress, as well as a chance to unwind. Dinner with loved ones can be a chance to talk about the day’s events with people who truly care. Sometimes, there may even be no need for conversation, and you may want to share a meal with someone while sitting in comfortable silence. 

The breaking of bread can be a fulfilling experience, especially when done among people you love and trust. So the next time you find yourself rushing through a meal in front of your computer, you may want to pause and reconsider. The warm feelings, sense of security, and enjoyment you experience from sharing a meal with others may be the kind of break that you really need.

Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change

Why paint inner development as a barrier to better systems? Amid crisis and complexity we need both.

I was annoyed by Ronald Purser’s article in the Guardian recently which I think gave a rather contracted view of mindfulness and the benefits people take away from the MBSR course. Among other things he points out that poorly qualified teachers do more harm than good, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but he also suggests that participants are not encouraged to see more clearly their authentic self and what’s worth fighting for to make life better for us all.

This isn’t my experience of teaching and practicing mindfulness so it was a great relief to read the following article by Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative. It has inspired me to develop a retreat or short course to focus mindfulness practice on knowing more clearly what we feel strongly about in these uncertain and challenging times, and more importantly, to know what we can actually get involved with. It’s no good feeling fired up about everything and winging about it to anyone who’ll listen, we have to be realistic and focus our energy carefully and mindfully. If this course interests you let me know and I’ll be in touch when things are finalised.

I hope you enjoy Jamie’s article too.

I was working for the climate change campaign 10:10 around the time that NGOs in the environmental field were abandoning the “information deficit hypothesis” – the idea that giving people enough facts about the worsening ecological crisis would elicit action. Reflecting on what had driven my own shift from a career in advertising to full-time dedication to this cause, I felt sure that the greater stillness and sensitivity I’d developed through mindfulness practice had been instrumental in allowing the data I’d heard many times before to ‘land’ very differently. Faced with the confusion that existed in the climate movement at the time, I left to focus on sharing trainable qualities of awareness like mindfulness, and investigating the ways in which they shape our behaviour, and therefore, our world.

Like many evangelists before me, however, I had a very naive theory of change. I confess, back in 2010 I thought that people simply needed to meditate for socially-conscious behaviour to follow. In his recent critique, Ron Purser admonishes the mindfulness teaching community for assuming that ethical behaviour naturally arises from personal practice, inhibiting the radical action required to address the systemic causes of distress. The qualities of mindful awareness – open, empathic and caring – are not ethically neutral, and there is some evidence that they influence consumption and sustainable and prosocial behaviour, but it’s far from certain that developing an internal climate of friendliness will lead to collective action or resistance.

It’s also true that the route mindfulness training has taken into mainstream culture – via clinical settings and academic studies that measure individual pathology much more easily than social good – has produced a tendency to frame distress and the benefits of mindfulness within a bio-medical paradigm. This likely limits the range of options that participants consider when using the greater sensitivity and discernment that come through practice to make changes in their lives. Mindfulness courses already explore the implications of practice in relational contexts, and as a result of these conversations they continue to evolve in ways that include wider questions about society and the environment. A recent Transformation article by the founders of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network details some of the ways in which this is already happening.

Recent years have shown us however, that people are deeply divided in their conceptions of the good society and how to get there. This makes it tricky to deliver training programmes with a fixed or singular vision of social change. After all, how might it feel if your government rolled-out a new psychological programme that explicitly nudged participants towards a stance opposite to your own on some sensitive issue?

In his paper on mindfulness, public health ethics researcher Andreas T. Schmidt reminds us that in a liberal democracy, personally transformative interventions “should not aim to promote particular conceptions of the good.” Instead, they must support us to “pursue [our own] conceptions of the good – more or less – whatever those conceptions are,” unless there is consensus that other values take precedence over neutrality (like promoting non-smoking, for example).

What is considered ‘neutral’ or ‘common-sense’ by the majority does of course change, and there is strong reason to hope that mindfulness facilitates the kind of collective sense-making that’s required to steer this shift in a positive direction. But even if mindfulness courses were more explicit in how they equipped and supported people to ask big questions about themselves and their place in the world, they can’t supply all the answers.

The vast majority of those working in the mindfulness training sector, at least in Europe, already have a bigger vision than helping participants to ‘de-stress.’ Many have been discussing a shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ for years, but the need for neutrality makes that evolution a more complex process, whilst exposing mindfulness to criticism from those who would take a more strident approach to embedding a particular agenda of social change.

In addition, while Purser’s critique helpfully reminds us that individual wellbeing is entangled with culture and social structures, it casts systemic change in an ‘either/or’ relationship with positive psychology and therapeutic approaches to distress. At this crisis point where 20th Century solutions no longer serve us, we can’t afford false binaries like this. Now is the time for ‘both/and’ thinking that can hold systemic and psychological lenses in creative tension with one another.

The profound entanglement of individual and collective forces entails, not only that structural conditions shape our personal motivations, but also that personal development is required for cultural development towards a more emotionally-intelligent, compassionate and just society. Any hope of generating effective, appropriate and collective responses to the radical interconnectivity of life with all its volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous implications, requires that we grow up.

Growing up doesn’t stop at the age of 18. We develop continuously, and certain conditions and behaviours can accelerate, slow or limit that process. Attempts to map and measure how adults develop psychological maturity and complexity show that those at later ‘stages’ are, for example, more able to hold nuance, synthesise ideas, interrogate their values and understand themselves. The more that people are helped to heal widespread barriers to growth such as inter-generational trauma, and the more support that is given to them to learn from life’s trials, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges we face.

This is vital if we are to resist polarising political rhetoric and manipulation, and ensure that any action we take is likely to be effective. If we haven’t matured to the point where we can acknowledge the influence of our unconscious human drives, emotions and mechanisms of self-deceit, then our attempts to help others or solve problems can be radically counter-productive. Inner actions might be invisible, but they are nonetheless real actions with real effects. Neglecting this arena has consequences that are every bit as serious as neglecting to organise, protest and campaign.

Although there is undoubtedly scope to make mindfulness training more transformative, it is likely that existing high-quality training programmes are already a strong net-positive for society. That’s an easy case to make if you value wellbeing, compassion and the quality of relationships as ends in and of themselves. But beyond these intrinsic arguments we can also build a compelling case that mindfulness is critical in meeting some of our most urgent problems.

That’s because the ability to choose where and how to pay attention grounds our agency. Far from galvanizing mass action, distress in the digital age is more frequently manipulated by ‘attention merchants’ who sell us myriad ways to distract and numb ourselves. Developing a greater awareness of these patterns through mindfulness, and strengthening the mental power to resist being pulled in all directions by corporations, isn’t just self-defence – it’s an act of emancipation. Thus liberated, more attention is available to analyse new or discordant information and stay alive to opportunities for more positive engagement.

As humanity’s ability to make an impact on the world gallops ahead of our capacity to make sense of it, mindfulness enables us to reorient attention towards our object of choice, and also to recruit more and different ways of perceiving. By fighting less with our present moment experience and cultivating openness, we are more able to tune in to what is really going on, resist bias and respond appropriately. As practitioners connect more deeply with the body as a source of insight, for example, non-conceptual ways of knowing offer a basis for discerning action that may be more aligned with what they value most.

Whilst reactivity has always been a feature in the exchange of ideas, the contemporary pressure to respond quickly and publicly to everything means that discourse is increasingly antagonistic and distorted. The development of ‘meta-cognitive awareness’ (the ability to recognise and be aware of one’s own mental processes) through mindfulness practice, and the emphasis on responding creatively rather than reacting impulsively, have important consequences for political polarisation and the productivity of public debate.

Taken together, these capacities of directing attention, making sense and relating constructively correlate strongly with what the polymath thought-leader Jordan Hall calls ‘sovereignty’ – our ability to “respond to the world rather than to be overwhelmed.”

We may choose to respond to the world by attempting to shape it justly and compassionately. And we may seek to manage our distress and increase our agency, discernment and self-understanding. To set these complementary actions at odds with each-other is a waste of time we do not have. After seven years of studying mindfulness training across many different sectors of society, I know that creating change is a whole lot messier than getting people onto the meditation cushion. But it’s also more complicated than insisting that social structures change above or before anything else.

We must consider both our context and our healing, our embeddedness and our sovereignty. Despite wearyingly frequent reports to the contrary, the field of mindfulness does not suffer from the delusion that training is a panacea. But it is an indispensable tool among the many we need to be equal to the extraordinary challenges of our time.

Make space for enjoying your life

I just listened to an amazing podcast on This American Life about an elderly lady who’s family didn’t tell her that the results of her latest health check noticed a tumour on the lung and gave her only three months to live.

The family decided not to tell her and opted instead to protect her from the stress and worry, and carried on as usual.

That was in 2015 and amazingly the old lady is still alive and well today.

When I heard this podcast it reminded me of wise words from great masters, such as Thích Nhất Hạnh and the Dali Lama, that speak of the power of equanimity, or a balanced mind, and the destructive affect of negative thinking. Is it possible that the old lady has survived 4 years because she has been protected from the stress of a terminal diagnosis? We may never know for sure but the idea certainly resonates with me and what I understand about mindfulness.

The whole idea of being mindful is to be aware of how we feel at any given moment – how we really feel I mean. Knowing the attitude of the mind, and feeling the energy in the body is the direct line to our authentic self.

Being connected to our inner landscape enables us to ‘see’ unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and emotions in motion, and only when we are aware can we work with them and be in control. If we remain unconscious of them they will spin out of control and affect everything we do, in turn, this influences our character and our health.

I feel very privileged to be a mindfulness teacher because it encourages me to practice all the time. As well as sitting meditations, I practice opening to the joy of life at any given moment, even when pain or discomfort is present. For example, I recently had a UTI flareup and felt pretty grotty, but even in this state there were plenty of enjoyable things to focus on, and while this didn’t make the pain go away it made space for other experiences. I let in some joy and research shows how positive this little adjustment can be.

Research is confident about the health benefits of mindfulness, but proving that reducing stress can prolong life, even with a terminal diagnosis, might take more time. Meanwhile, it clearly hasn’t done the lady in the story any harm, and long may that continue.