Listen with Mother

It was part of my early childhood, that radio programme which enquired “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” My mother would have been around, no doubt, the hand that turned on the wireless, but not with in any meaningful sense.

Our relationship was difficult, principally because of her undiagnosed but severe mental illness. It was so difficult, in fact, that it seemed a necessary act of self-preservation to cease all contact with her at the age of 23. This remained the case until her death, news of which prompted an exultant uprush of relief.

Only recently, in the last few weeks in fact, has it occurred to me that this person who provoked so much fear and distress would themselves have been suffering, and suffering terribly. Such is the power of the entrenched personal narrative, I suppose.

Slowly and very carefully I have been practicing tonglen with my mother. Feeling towards that hurt at the heart of her, the loneliness, confusion and prison of pain. It is searing in the hearing.

And I, who was never allowed to touch, or be touched by, her in life have held her in my arms, rocked her and stroked her cheek and her hair. We are so alike. Her pain is my pain. Which, since I appeared to her as a physical manifestation of everything that was unwanted and, frankly, evil, should come as little surprise.

We are so alike. We are utterly inseparable. And, absolutely astonishingly, I discovered that I love her.

Dharma dog

Dharma dog

Maizy and I take turns on the cushion, but it has to be said that her practice more often resembles sleep.

Another excerpt from the meditation buddy correspondence.

Yesterday I signed up to the Dharma Ocean website and today downloaded the free guide to meditating that signing up gives access to and started listening. It’s like two CDs worth of stuff and the third track of the first part (which is as far as I’ve got) is a guided 10-point meditation. I carefully shut my door and assumed that Maizy would remain asleep on the bed as she had been while I listened  to tracks 1 and 2.

Oh no. The moment I was on the floor she started pacing around, whining gently, licking my hands, scratching at the door and eventually pawing at me, pulling at my hands. I decided to just leave her be, but when the meditation transitioned from lying to sitting I took the opportunity to open the door, let her out and shut it behind her.

Silence for just long enough to relax and re-engage… and then whining and scratching at the door. And it occurred to me that she was being a physical correlative of my thinking mind/ego – disconcerted, agitated, seeking attention. Now, of course, that I am tapping away at the laptop she is again asleep on the bed snoring gently.

Interestingly, this was how she behaved initially when I was sitting, in my usual place in the corner of the room. She would pace around, lick me, nudge my hands off my legs with her nose and generally make it clear she felt disregarded. As time passed she got accustomed to the situation and generally lies down and curls up, sometimes at my feet, sometimes on a nearby rug on the floor. Perhaps it was the unaccustomed procedure, lying on the floor near the door, that disturbed her, just as a new technique disturbs the thinking mind. Who knew? Maizy the great teacher!

Who am I?

Who am I?

Of course everything has changed. How could it not. Most of my body has been replaced since that last post (in 2010). There are themes, perhaps, such as the continuing affection for taking pictures of London plane trees and the designs of Kate Davies. I made her Carbeth Cardigan to wear at my wedding. Knitting still happens, a lot.

Yes, being married, that’s a change. The power of a performative speech act is immeasurable. I am so grateful to have Dave in my life. At the party to celebrate our marriage it was my son Joseph who put into words some of what Dave means to me, to us, and the powerful force for change he has been and continues to be. Someday, technology permitting, I’ll put up the video of that speech.

I love my boys men so very much.

Why start blogging again? An interesting question, to me at least.

When I started in 2003 I was very ill and had been off work for a number of months with deep depression. When a friend called up to find out how I was I remember telling her that I didn’t exist. She tactfully avoided asking who, then, was talking to her on the phone. I tactfully avoided telling her that I wished profoundly not to exist, in so far as I could be said still to do so.

In retrospect blogging probably marked a turning point, a reaching out from a safe space of anonymity for some form of contact, a desire to communicate. I felt that whoever “I” had been, a structure envisaged as some kind of edifice constructed from components a bit like Lego bricks, had been smashed apart. It was, therefore, logically the case that “recovery” consisted in collecting the bits and reassembling them, possibly in a different configuration less susceptible to damage.

About two years later the rationale of the re-fortification project began to be challenged by a chance encounter with the meditation techniques taught by Alistair Appleton in a week-long course on Holy Isle.

sunlight

Other courses and retreats followed.  My personal practice was, at best, intermittent, but occasionally replenished. It became clearer over time that the blocks were in fact stumbling blocks and that the real material behind the frangible armour I’d erected to “protect” it was supple, elastic, resilient. Neuroplasticity became my salvational doctrine of choice.

I’ve recently reconnected with my meditation practice in a very profound way after another Mindsprings retreat with Alistair, also on Holy Isle, concentrating on cultivating bodhicitta. Alistair’s teacher is Reggie Ray of Dharma Ocean who is teaching in the lineage of his teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. The practices are, of course, extremely powerful, but it was this in combination with the method of the practice that I found transformative – the use of awareness of the body as a meditation tool really allowed me to calm the thinking mind and access some profound non-cognitive insights. And this combined with Alistair’s own teaching and deep knowledge of psychology and neurobiology also made those insights and experiences make sense to the “show me your evidence” thinking mind, which no doubt helped in the digestive process.

The big take-home grand prize was the dawning awareness that I wasn’t on the retreat for me… I no longer feel irreparably damaged or flawed, traumatised or fucked up or whatever it was. My life is my life but the past no longer has the imprisoning power it used to. It just is.

In the womb of the island turned toward the light.

In this interview with Reggie Ray I was intrigued by the following observation about depression:

“[Chogyam Trungpa said] depression is the most dignified and realistic of all the samsaric states… depression still is happening within an ego framework… but as he put it himself depression is the closest thing to actual enlightenment that we can experience without actually crossing over. And what he meant by that was that in depression, real depression and deep depression, you see that the usual way in which you spend your time and the usual kind of pursuits that everyone engages in are fundamentally meaningless, meaningless in the sense that they don’t deliver what we’re hoping they will deliver, that’s not what they’re about, and you’re left feeling that there’s no point even being alive. … Enlightened people within the Buddhist framework see the same thing but they don’t have the same response and what makes depression depression is that there is still some feeling that it should be otherwise.”

So in a way it’s a bit of a circle. From disintegration (a very painful experience) to dismantling (which might well be painful, but in a different way). Trying to catch sight of where and how the L/ego blocks of the thinking mind are arranged and through that perhaps allowing that inner material, so long circumscribed by cramping carapace, to expand into the world, the universe, of which it is composed.

A process of ecdysis, perhaps, with the practice and teacher and friends the support against re-hardening.

Holy Island class and teacher of 05 mini reunion. Thinking of you @bwmaness 💚

Thank you so much Alistair, Kirsty and Laurence, thank you.

Difficult shit

After my most recent retreat a lot of us found it useful to “buddy up” as a way of helping each other maintain our practice beyond the extraordinary space of the group and the place and into the quotidian. I’ve found myself emailing my buddy with rather verbose accounts of this and that, some of which I’ll post here.

My meditation today (7.30pm) was spectacularly unsuccessful. I’m sitting there in the dark corner of the room thinking about anything my poor mind can come up with to try to exert control and keep awareness at bay and I’m saying “thought” so regularly that at one stage I realise I’m just repeating it over and over like it’s a mutant mantra even when there are no thoughts to label.

Then elder son knocks on the door (which is open anyway), glances around the room and disappears. I can see him out of my peripheral vision (eyes downcast a few feet in front of me as prescribed). I assume he’s seen me and retired, embarrassed by my hippy behaviour. I label this thought as “ thought”. Along with all the subsequent speculation about what it was he might have wanted.

A few minutes later younger son shouts from his room next door “Mother” (for this is the affectionate name by which I am known) “do you have a something-or-other [insert incomprehensible computer terminology here] cable?” “She’s not in” shouts elder son from his room at the other end of the house. Hmm. So he didn’t actually notice me. (“Thought”)

Younger son bounces in and stands in the doorway. “What the hell is he doing?” I think, carefully labelling the thinking as “thought”. As if in reply the phone next to me makes its text noise, younger son leaps in the air, shrieks and runs from the room. “Oh my god how embarrassing” I hear him say to elder son, “she is in, she’s sitting”.

When I am eventually released from the torment of not-meditating by the timer I go to ask younger son what he wanted. “You almost gave me a heart attack” he says “stuck there in the corner looking like you were having a difficult shit”. “But that was me, touching nirvana” I reply. “Well,” he says, “that’s what most men feel like after a difficult shit.” Sigh.

This is not a prayer flag

blue and white

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

I revisited the video of the talk Mindfulness Stress Reduction and Healing given by Jon Kabat-Zinn and discovered, under the “related” links, a guided meditation session he also gave and was filmed at Google – Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn. He recited the above poem at the end of the session. Highly recommended.

So too is the talk by the extraordinary Buddhist monk, scientist, philosopher, author, photographer, humanitarian activist etc Matthieu RichardChange your Mind, Change your Brain: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness. Much food for thought and hope.

Out and about

 

I was out and about today, and took the camera.

First to St Martin-in-the-Fields for a short (very short) period of quiet for Just This Day. It seemed particularly appropriate to think about the peace talks in Annapolis. I had read Rachel’s post about hope before I left in the morning, and rather unexpectedly, it was hope that I found.

Then to the Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I managed not to be utterly depressed and demotivated by exposure to wonderful photographs. My favourite was taken by a 24-year-old who sounded, from the blurb beneath the picture, to be a complete hero. I also liked this one and this one. You can scroll through all the pictures in the exhibition from any of the previous three links.

A spot of spawn-stocking-present-shopping left me exhausted and with a very heavy bag so I retired to an excellent cheap Spanish greasy spoon and took pictures through the window while consuming hearty paella.I’m breaking all my self-imposed rules about taking pictures of people. I only asked one of the subjects shown above if I could photograph them.

Hypnotic earworm

by the sea - blue

Why would this image have anything to do with an earworm?

It was the teacher’s suggestion to use blue ink to make the print. Inspired. Now the water and foam look both like water and foam and also sky and cloud. And the moon floats serenely in both.

(Let me link yet again to the absolutely brilliant poem the image was originally created to go alongside.)

Sky and clouds feature as a metaphor for conveying how we might still our minds during meditation:

The mind is like space or like sky, completely clear, not solid, and vast, spacious and unlimited.

Try to get a sense of how your mind is like that, like this clear, vast, spacious sky.

The things that we are aware of, the thoughts, images, memories and so on, are similar to the clouds that pass through the sky.

They’re not always there but they appear and after a while they disappear.

If there are thoughts appearing in your mind while you are sitting here doing this meditation, thoughts, memories, images, or if you hear sounds or feel sensations in your body, think that these are just like clouds, passing through this space or clear sky of your mind.

Let them come and let them go, realise that they are only momentary and not solid, they just come and go.

Let them go and return your awareness to the mind itself, which is like the clear spacious sky.

“You can be above your thoughts and watch them as though they were clouds below you in the sky” said my teacher.

I have a huge problem with this, though. Absolutely massive.

The problem is that the first time I was introduced to this way of conceptualising the activity (or lack of activity) someone in the group, who shall remain nameless but never forgotten, started singing Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchel:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

And every single time, yes, every. single. time. I meditate in this way I have to listen to Joni and her little ditty.

This has been amusing. Also infuriating. Boring. Enraging. Irritating like a shirt label rubbing the sensitive skin on the back of your back. Painful as an ill-fitting shoe rubbing a raw patch of skin. Frustratingly circularly self-referential as a small dog chasing its docked tail.

No doubt this is highly revealing in some way about the crapness of my mind but don’t ask me how. Nowadays I just let her twitter on, secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do about it and trying to makes it worse. Maybe one day it won’t happen… and I’ll notice. And then maybe, one day, it won’t happen… and I won’t notice!

After producing a permanent pictorial reminder of a meditation closed-loop I trundled down to the IoP to take part in Dr Bell‘s research into the neuropsychology of suggestion and dissociative disorders, which was remarkably similar to the Joni effect.

I used to believe myself highly susceptible to hypnosis since a friend at university, who’d done a day’s course, managed to make me offer the assembled company hot chocolate in midsummer as a result of post-hypnotic suggestion. Of course I only have everyone else’s word for it that I was acting in a pre-programmed way since I remember nothing other than making the offer and everyone falling about laughing.

This time it was different. Although I believe I was probably hypnotised because I couldn’t, for instance, bend my arm when told it was stiff there was part of my brain which was observing everything as though from a distance. Looking at clouds from both sides now, as it were. So while I couldn’t bend my arm when told it was as stiff as a bar of iron there was part of my brain saying “hmmm, interesting. You’re trying really hard to bend your arm, genuinely trying, but you can’t. However you know that you haven’t lost the ability to move. You could do it. But you won’t because you’ve been told you can’t. Hmmm. Interesting.”

Most interesting was the post-hypnotic suggestion. I remember being told that I was going to forget everything I had been asked to do while hypnotised and then remember everything when I prompted by a certain set of words. I think I was told that I was also going to forget what I had been told. But the cloud-watching part of the brain was busy telling me that this was obviously the post-hypnotic suggestion part of the plan and was keeping tabs on what was going on.

When we were “woken up” we were asked to write down on a piece of paper what we had been doing while hypnotised. I knew that I’d been told I wouldn’t be able to remember, I also knew that I almost certainly could, but – and here’s the interesting bit (for those of you who might not find this blow-by-blow account entirely riveting) – I couldn’t activate the part of my brain necessary to recover the memory in order to write it down. In the end I had to write “I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember but I can’t remember whether I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember that or not”.

Doncha just love the human brain?

I fear my failure to be deeply hypnotised will rule me out of further opportunities to take part in the research and, most important of all to me, have a brain scan image all of my very own to play with. Rats.

So now I’m wondering what effect, if any, practising meditation has on ones suggestibility for hypnosis and whether this particular sort of dissociative activity (“mind observing mind”, unlike the pathological dissociation experienced by people with PTSD and, let it be said, certain forms of depression) is useful or otherwise.

Rhetorical wonderings, of course. But I’m glad I went and I’m glad I have the print which so serendipitously reminds me of the experience.