The kernel of this blog is simplicity. If we could only move our lives back into simplicity, so many of our contemporary problems would diminish or depart entirely.
And I find it ridiculously hard to do sometimes. The ‘things to do list’ only seems to grow, and the economics of living in London in 2016 seem so pressing. The pressures to ‘not fall behind’, ‘to keep up’ weigh on me mightily at times, when I feel a sense of panic at the sand pouring through the hourglass.
But then there are other times, where I drop back into the flow again, moving with the stream, tuning into the myriad ways it nourishes me. Last Sunday was one of those times, and it was all delightfully, gloriously, radically simple.
I was participating in a day of mindfulness in Kennington at the small beautiful Jamyang Buddhist monastery organised by the Heart of London group which follows the wonderful Vietnamese Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh,
Over seven hours we ate, walked, spoke, listened, and meditated together – all things I might do in an average day anyway – but this time all these things were drenched in mindfulness.
What do I mean by mindfulness? Simply being aware in the present moment of what is actually happening – physically, emotionally and cognitively.
As I type this article, my fingers are flying across the keypad and the pads of all my fingers are feeling the plastic of the letters as they hit the right key. It’s like a little massage for the fingers, and as I tune in I notice that sometimes it’s the nails that are touching the keys and sometimes it’s more towards the centre of the fingertip. And now I’m tuning in further, I’m aware that my wrist is involved and my two arms, and as I notice this, my whole posture changes, I’m more upright and simply enjoying the wonderful physical and mental experience of turning thoughts into words.
Wow! That increased sense of wellbeing came from just three minutes of mindful typing.
Of course, although it’s a simple practice, it can also be difficult because it runs so counter to the way we’re encouraged to run our lives today. Busy, busy, busy; we are all so caught up in our own heads, thinking about the past, the future, the looming deadlines. Even the way we ‘consume’ our ‘leisure’ can come from that same driven, grasping place, that sense of urgency and box-ticking.
That’s why attending a day of mindfulness is such a good idea. In the company of others you remember, yet again, the basics. How good it feels to come home to your own physical body and feel what it feels, see what it sees, hear what it hears. You become more aware of the thought clouds passing through the sky of your mind. It’s easier with other people to encourage you. Some of your calmness passes to them, and vice versa. Through giving gentle attention to your body as it takes an in-breath and an out-breath, or feeling it move through space in the process of walking, you come to a much more solid place. It’s not a magic wand of happiness: if you are dealing with difficult things in your life then you may feel that sadness or anger more consciously. But I tend to find that if I allow myself to feel these, then relief and peace come in their wake. And I always become far more aware of the simple things in life which bring me joy.
And so it was on Sunday, when I had my first proper experience of eating mindfully. Usually I bolt down my food quickly, with gusto, like a happy tail-wagging dog. I am dimly aware of the taste and texture, I enjoy it, but it’s not mindful – (apart from when I’m eating something I’ve cooked outside in the open air for some reason). This time I noticed my sensations of hunger and impatience, as I watched the steam spiralling up from the hot plate in front of me, and felt the juices in my mouth rising. We were made to wait a short time until everyone sat down, and I realise now that the wait was really important. Because when I finally started eating, it was a revelation.
I was struck by the wonderful texture of the rice – the way it had bite and firmness, cooked to just the right point. The flavour of the cashew nuts in the stew came and went, teasing me, sometimes right there, sometimes evading me. The salad was like a wonderful mystery – one minute biting into the nuttiness of a sprout, the sweetness of a pomegranate seed – there was a roasted seed in the mix that I just couldn’t quite identify, which imparted a wonderful extra taste and texture to the whole thing.
Healing urban sounds – really?
As my awareness of sensations increased during the day, I became more aware of the city sounds in the distance. The train’s two note hooting was jaunty, cheerful, like a friendly wave. One riff even sounded like a huge saxophone.
I also became aware that planes were flying overhead more or less constantly, with a new one every five minutes. But this didn’t bother me – instead I found I enjoyed the noise when I really listened to it. I rediscovered, again, that it has a musicality to it – a blend of notes moving down a scale from high to low, like a strange wind instrument, driven along by its engines’ rhythmic roar. It even seemed that I could feel its vibration as well as hear it – the way it rumpled the atmosphere through which it moved.
And it didn’t stop there. On the way home I paid attention to the sound of a car accelerating and slowing down repeatedly as it moved over speed bumps on my road. Normally the sound would annoy me and I’d try to block it out. Now I sang along to it – high, low, then high again.
When I switched on the radio later it just so happened to play the Ultimate Care album by electronic duo Matmos, constructed entirely out of sounds generated by a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine. Mindfulness makes art, too.