Session 1 of our latest eight week course got underway this week - Waking up to the Autopilot. As always we started with the Raisin practice....remember that?!
There was a wonderful variety of experiences shared, including thoughts of distant childhood memories, feelings of disappointment, self-deprecating thoughts, thoughts of weirdness, a reminder of how children often experience things very differently to ourselves when they see things as if for the first time, and the richness of tastes spreading around the mouth from that single raisin.
The realisation of how our experience can be transformed by the simple act of paying attention is one of the key learnings of the 8 week course.
But, of course, it's not that easy to remember to do, and another key learning of session 1 is how the autopilot has other plans for our attention. The mind wanders off time and time again, but we learn, not through reading about it but by actually doing it, that there is a possibility to train the mind to come back to where we had intended our attention to be placed.
But a crucial question is how do we come back?
Often there is a sense of subtle self-criticism - no matter how many times you hear me saying it's not a mistake, or to congratulate yourself when you notice your mind has wandered off, I suspect, if you're anything like me, that there is still a sense that you should be doing it better, that in some way you should be doing things differently. That sense goes to the heart of what we are learning, forgetting then learning again and again, through our Mindfulness practice.
If you look deep enough you may see that we have an almost unquenchable thirst to either want to hold on to things we like or very often to want to turn away from things we don't. It's how we've evolved. Even the most basic single-celled organism, an amoeba, will move towards certain things and move away from more unpleasant things - the technical term for this is chemotaxis.
And that process is very much what still pushes our buttons. That turning away from our experience, that pattern of aversion, is something that we can look at in our practice , as we experience our mind wander off and notice the attitude with which we bring it back. And the crucial thing is, with practice, we may change that attitude, and bring those changes into our daily life.
I recently came back from an amazing Mindfulness teacher's retreat in Devon where
Christina Feldman, who has been practising and teaching Mindfulness for over 50 years, put it very simply - "The biggest movement that participants make over the course of an 8 week Mindfulness course is the shift from aversion to kindness." This movement doesn't need to cease at the end of the 8 weeks.
The more I practice, the more I am learning, and still learning through my practice, that this attitude of kindness is something that can be cultivated and really is at the heart of Mindfulness. Indeed, one could say that if you are not seeing the word "Mindfulness" as "Heartfulness" then there is something missing. What we are doing is much more than just an exercise in concentration.
But the autopilot will often get in the way, we keep forgetting!
One needs to have the INTENTION to firstly pause and make the decision to practice those attentional and attitudinal skills which enables us to stay with our experiences, however they may be. In doing so we may bring into our daily lives more helpful habits - kindness, patience etc - rather than those aversive habits that come more easily.
Many people feel that kindness is either something you have or you don't have . Well my understanding, through spending quite some time exploring my own experience through practice, is that kindness is not a feeling or an emotion that you have, but more a behavioural intention, which like any intention, can be developed through practice. Over the last few months I have been doing some more kindness practices, and slowly, day by day, week by week, things are shifting.
This doesn't mean I am always kind and patient at work, at home, with my kids....far from it! And it certainly doesn’t mean that I live in a world where everything is lovely and fluffy, and no-one can do any wrong and I lack any stimulus to do anything. But I am realising that the shift towards kindness allows those habit patterns that can entangle us to be seen more clearly and to slowly loosen their hold, allowing us the possibility to act with more clarity and more wisdom.
I have made the intention to spend some time each day in what I think to be a worthwhile pursuit - training my mind. And like those participants who have just started session 1, I am making progress along that crucial shift from aversion to kindness. It takes time and practice, but fortunately, there is no rush.
I will be exploring this further at our next sitting group on Monday 12th November and if you have forgotten and would like to remind yourself about some of what you learned in your 8 week course, you are most welcome to join us, no matter how long it has been since you last practiced.