Mindfulness – the year’s most depressing trend

I chanced on a Telegraph article from last year – mindfulness ‘the most depressing trend of 2015’. And a headline I saw this week – ‘mindfulness is boring’.

I could spare myself the occasional read of the Telegraph, but I treat it as a penance. And the sport can be very good.

The Telegraph journalist from last year admitted she was only after a quick fix but felt qualified to opine that there was a ‘bigger, scarier point’. ‘Why are so many of us living lives we feel unable to cope with? How is it that we are so unhappy with our lots that we will willingly sit cringing in a room with our colleagues while remembering to breathe?’ She interviewed a wide variety of people for the documentary she was making, ‘even Buddhists’.

I am, I have to be as the author of this blog, a charitable soul, but the sheer inanity of her remarks take some beating. If I’m unhappy – it’s with this sort of drivel – the Brexit quick-fix mentality. If you want to find out how afflicted many of us our with our lives – read the Daily Mail.

Life is a slow burn, and if we could all give ourselves time to breathe, to show compassion – to be mindful – we’d be a million times better for it.

Keeping sane amid the chaos

How (if you’re me!) to keep measured and sane amid the chaos.

For starters, two reminders from a Buddhist meditation handbook:

‘…one shouldn’t have a great deal of desire… one must be content, which means whatever one has is fine and right.’ ‘Whatever one has is fine and right.’ (My italics.)

‘The place where we stay should be free from a lot of activity and a large number of people… (we should reduce) our involvement in too many activities.’  Now there’s a challenge.

Then there’s something I’ve loved since childhood – watching cricket. I enjoyed England’s decisive and exuberant victory over Pakistan in the second test match that ended yesterday. Always good to head out to Lords or the Oval, or stand on the boundary at Cranham cricket club … (A friend reminds me of the joke – ‘God gave cricket to the English so that they should have some sort of idea of eternity ‘ – that was certainly true of the first test match. I was there.)

And moving out beyond the cricket field – out further into the wild, and the wilderness, into the countryside, to the coast, to the mountains:

(‘What would the world be, once bereft /Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left…’)

walk (or run) in the meadows and beech woods

head off down to Cornwall and walk around Penwith from St Ives, via Zennor and Land’s End and Porthcurno, to Penzance (carrying a tent and heavy rucksack in the hot sun a small downside, likewise the heat exhaustion!)

puzzle over the wild flowers (betony abundant in Cornwall – a small sense of triumph identifying it!)

listen or watch, or maybe both…

– two buzzards wheeling above me on the coast path near Treryn Dinas just east of Porthcurno, piping much of the time, occasionally they come together and there’s a scurry of wings, and they resume their circling. The following morning, 7.30, I’ve struck camp, and I’m on my way, light rain, grey out to sea, and they’re back there, ahead of me, still slowly circling

– the owl which I disturbed in the woods later that morning – it took off maybe only two or three feet away from me, a vast and silent presence, and a powerful absence, disappearing into the light at the end of the green tunnel behind me

– the sound of a soprano, yes, a soprano, from the Britten opera being performed at the Minack theatre a mile away, it was 9pm, and I was tucked away in my tent, trying to sleep…

– a yellow snail (a ‘white-lipped banded snail’), and a red-winged fly – the small and surprising things, which puzzle, and take the mind down from the high and inflated places to the simple and beautiful

– and back in the Cotswolds, a lesser spotted woodpecker now a regular visitor to the bird feeder and the birdbath in the garden, and the goldfinches

– and the long warm summer evenings, the stillness, and the small party which headed out onto the common at midnight to look for glow-worms

There is hope for the world yet.


Mindfulness – the Ladybird way

Predictably – and happily – I was given Mindfulness in the new Ladybird series for adults for Christmas. Only 54 pages – and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes if gets it spot on.

Clive practises loving-kindness meditation – and it ‘finds it easier than bothering to meet his friends and lending them money’.

‘In ancient times Guru Bhellend entered a state of mindfulness that lasted 35 years. During this time he thought about everything.’ When he’d finished he writes ‘the answer on a grain of rice’. ‘He never married,’ it concludes.

(In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought comes up with 42, as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, after a 7 1/2 million year search.)

The easy way and extreme way, and both miss the path. The good old middle way.

Though even that may not work out. Last week walking on Offa’s Dyke we took the middle way, and ended up in a field looking east when we should have been by a stream looking south….

Not quite an ideal world

A recent comment suggested I was writing about an ideal world, and that worried me.

The puzzle and challenge for me is the everyday: how we can better link insights into our human condition to our working lives, to our personal and our social lives, to the national agenda. The insights come from Zen and wider Buddhist ideas and practice, but they connect easily with our own Western traditions. Most of us fully appreciate the benefits of finding peace and calm in our lives, though we protest that we’re too busy to slow down. We regret our ill-temper, bouts of anger, self-serving pleasures. If we show kindness and compassion we’re pleased and rather proud of ourselves. We got it right for once.

But we don’t act on what we know, and I’m arguing that it’s not so difficult. Meditating, mindfulness, walking, even standing still, shutting out 24-hour news and 24-hour noise, setting aside space for ourselves – start small, just get out for a walk, it’s no need to be heavy duty. You don’t need to sit in a triple lotus…

(A fridge magnet I saw today ran as follows: ‘Stress is the confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it.’ I love it – and it’s not quite what I’m arguing.)

You may have read about a new series: Ladybird books for adults. Already bestsellers. There’s even one on mindfulness. And one on dating. Mindfulness fits my argument slightly better. But if that’s too trendy, then I still like the basic idea. Start simple. (One date at a time.) Don’t over complicate.

Benefits – I hope they’re evident from what I’ve written elsewhere, if they’re not I’ve failed miserably.

I’m not anticipating a brave new dispensation just around the corner. If for some there’s a sense of a new consciousness, a new wisdom, which could yet change the world, then I thought that forty and more years ago, and it didn’t happen. I’m none too optimistic now about it catching on with readers of the Daily Mail, or indeed the billion plus who make up the Han population of China.

Though who knows, give them time.

For now 82 million members of the Communist Party in China have a lockdown on opinion. And mindfulness and the Daily Mail don’t go too well together, though if you’re into mindfulness and an avid reader of the Mail, then I apologise.

But if we can be simply a little slower to judgement, look a little more widely before we leap, then by small increments we can make the world a better place. And who know we might just have a Great Leap Forward.



Is this zen politics?

How does zen politics connect to the way we engage with the world, the way we operate as individuals in society, to politics and (Jonathan Rowson’s sphere – see my last blog) to policy?

As a starting-point, let’s take a Zen monk, Norman Fischer, quoted by Rowson, arguing that spiritual practice is ‘useless, absolutely useless’. You can do lots of good things for self, family and friends, but spiritual practice won’t help you address any of these concerns.

Elsewhere Rowson quotes Steven Asma in the RSA magazine: ‘If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers’.

Fischer’s experience is opposite to mine. And I don’t think it’s Zen. As for Asma, Rowson suggests he hasn’t heard of the metta sutta (a core practice in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism), which involves expanding that sense of loving kindness we keep for ourselves and our family and community and extending it to the wider world – and then the whole world.

Extending loving kindness… someone today said to me yesterday how difficult that was. I disagree. We simply, and constantly, need to focus less on our selfish preoccupations, and more on the needs of others. It is a remarkable and simple corrective, and tunes into a fundamental part of each of us. Violence and confrontation are seen for what they are, at best an aberration and at worse and outright evil.

Care and compassion need not be, are not, limited resources. Care can be infinite, where we attach the same value to others as we do to ourselves. So we need less a sense of something beyond, more something a natural extension of ourselves, and the excitement and the mystery comes from realizing simply how wonderful and powerful that might be.

How do we get there? One suggestion…

By reflecting on the world and taking in all sides of an issue or argument, and by practising mindfulness. In Rowson’s words: ‘Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control.’ If you don’t believe him, or me – try it.

I hesitate these days mentioning mindfulness. It’s out there – a therapy, an accepted business practice or fad, depending on your outlook. Whereas I see it a part of the very fabric of life, essential to understanding how best to live our lives, a corrective against a partial or overly-personal view of the world, and all the negativity and false emotions that go with that view.

If you’re with me this far, you may argue that while it’s wonderful having the right attitudes, how do we translate them into practical action, how can we make (encourage our politicians make) better public policy, how can we as members of society engage with policy and both criticize and help enact it as appropriate? And how can we ensure we have a popular press that takes part in that process, allows debate and argument, and by its own engagement and actions encourages readers to be likewise engaged.

Not easy of course, and that’s not easy even on this beautiful Sunday morning. and cannot be achieved by preaching from pulpits, by politicians or by headline and leader writers. It has to come from within us, and that is both easy, with self-knowledge, and appallingly difficult, in our current climate, where we rush to judgement and prefer to follow the herd.


What’s in a word?

This blog is very much about bringing an extra personal, insightful approach to life and to politics, avoiding bias, propaganda, partiality, ideology, personal attacks. And recognizing all the time that we have to understand and connect to the other side’s point of view. Only when we can inhabit that other side, and understand its motivations, can we express a proper judgement. Of course we don’t and we can’t slow down the process of living too much while we deliberate, but we can develop an instinctive mindset.

Mindfulness and Zen, and other aspects of Buddhism, are part of the mix, but mindfulness in the sense of an ancient wisdom, not picked up as a temporary fad, soon to be discarded as all fads are.

Finding the right words, the right language is a problem. Mindfulness now has two aspects, modern, and therapeutic, and ancient (how about ‘classical’, sounds better). Spirituality is another much-used word, and much abused – mention ‘spirituality’ and people see another word for religion and if so minded they focus on all the divisiveness they associate with religion, rather than it’s capacity to bring people together. So any attempt to bring a broader perspective to human engagement is stifled.

I am talking about a broader perspective – another dimension, another way of approaching life and politics. Even for me spirituality suggests a state of mind that we bring from the outside to bear on the real world, when what I’m arguing is that an open-minded and, if you want, shared-minded approach is something that comes naturally to us. We simply have to recognize it in ourselves, and run with it.

So what word could we use instead of the ‘s’ word? ‘Wisdom’ suggests a meaning beyond the ordinary and day-to-day. Jonathan Rowson (RSA Social Brain blog) refers to people engaging with society and being ‘motivated by their ideals and their feelings and their vision of being part of something bigger than themselves’. That suggests wisdom, and a deeper meaning , but ‘feelings’ and ‘vision’ are soft words. So too ‘something bigger than themselves’.

And the trouble with wisdom is that in the West it readily attaches to the wisdom tradition, with its esoteric associations, whereas the wisdom I’m talking about focuses on understanding human nature, and our potential if we look beyond short-term cravings, misplaced energy and easy satisfaction

Insight is likewise a powerful word. Like mindfulness it has a strong Buddhist association – vipassana or ‘insight’ meditation. But it also has its casual, quotidian meaning, localised rather than universal, and that’s hard to shake.

So we may be stuck with spirituality. But we need to be careful to play down religious connections and focus on intrinsic meaning rather than external religious validation.