Monday, February 21, 2011

Towards The Still Point 1

The Image of Journey

Waiting on the plane, Dublin  Airport Dec., 2010
In the last few posts I have been dealing in imagery.  As every writer and poet knows, an image, like a picture, speaks a thousand words.  I have already given several images to sum up what we mean by STILL POINT.  As regards our spirituality, by which I mean the human endeavour to make one's life meaningful and essentially livable, the image of journey is used almost universally by the different religious and spiritual traditions.  We are always, as they say in Latin, "in via" or "on the way."  We very seldom say much about the destination, as that is seldom reached in actuality.  What is essential is that we are making the journey, which ends in our death.  Not to be "in via" or "on the way" is to surrender to chaos; to let things drift by growing fat or indifferent or cynical or whatever; to succumb to the allures of the capitalist society by being sucked into the consumerist mentality; to buy into the lies sold us of what success should be; to hand over our own self-development and self-control, and indeed our personal destiny into the control of the State.

Setting out on the Journey:

Step 1: Learning to be Mindful:

I have been involved in meditation for the last thirty years or more and have written a book on the subject. (See this link here: Veritas )  Our Starting Point in our journey to The Still Point is to begin with teaching ourselves (and others) how to become mindful human beings.  Essentially what we mean by this is learning to "pay attention to" what we are doing at any particular time or learning "to wake up to" reality as the late great Fr Tony de Mello, S.J. used to put it.  At school when I am dealing with either mainstream or Special Education pupils, be they on the ASD spectrum or whatever, I encourage them "to check in" (which is my term for "paying attention to" or "waking up" or "becoming aware" or "becoming mindful") before we begin our lessons.  Now, I hasten to add here that as a Special Needs and Resource Teacher I never have any more than six students in any one group.  By "checking in" I mean teaching them to pay attention to what their bodies are saying to them firstly and then asking them to pay attention to how they are feeling.   This is done in a circle and I as teacher lead off.  It has been my experience that pupils of all ages love this exercise.  I do this exercise all the time whether I am helping them with their Maths or English or Communications or Social Skills.

On our way to Rome, Dublin airport, Dec., 2010
In checking in, I am asking them to pay attention to their physical and emotional self and to do so without passing any judgement whatsoever.  In short it is an exercise in simply observing how things are with them now in this moment in their body and in their feelings.  Professor Paul Gilbert speaks of the "old brain/mind" by which he means the more primitive layer of the brain where all the sensing, the feeling and the desiring goes on.  In Jungian terms, that's where all the archetypes abound.  I have written much about archetypes in these posts before, see here: Archetypes.  In other words, the "old brain/mind" is the repository of "me wants," not "me needs" which are really just the basics.  This level of the brain corresponds with what the Buddha calls the clinging or dependent nature of the human person.

Gilbert refers to the new brain/mind as being that area of the human brain/mind where consciousness abounds, where awareness or mindfulness can be accessed if we choose to do so.  That's simply it - we begin our journey by choosing to access this level of the brain/mind, by choosing to learn to become more aware, more mindful; by learning to wake up to reality; by learning to listen to our bodies and to our feelings; by checking in with our body - physical and emotional - by honouring it as the locus of what makes us us!  As I write these notes here I am aware of the flicker of letters as they appear on my computer monitor, the feel of the keys under my fingers, the thoughts as they arrange themselves in my mind/brain, the sentences as I form them into paragraphs, and lastly I am aware of the music playing in the background as I compose this blog.  As I check in I can feel my weight upon the chair in which I sit, the angle of my back that is slightly paining me after my work-out in the gym yesterday.  In other words, I can and do exercise my mindfulness when I choose to do it.  Learn it.  You, too, can do it now, even as you are reading these words.  Literally notice what you are doing, how you are sitting, what angle your head is at, where the stresses are in your body at the moment; how you are feeling emotionally; the movement of your fingers on the mouse as you scan the Internet and open this or that or the other site.  Notice too the words you see, the images and so on and so forth.  Mindfulness can be done at any time, no matter where we are.

Learning to be Mindful as we Eat

Some years back I did a Buddhist retreat where over the course of the weekend we had literally to do everything mindfully.  We learnt to walk mindfully, concentrating and paying attention as we placed each foot on the ground as we walked around the lovely gardens of the retreat centre.  We also were taught to eat our meal mindfully.  Feel the texture of the bread as we broke it, buttered it and placed it in our mouths, became aware of its taste and that of the soup as we swallowed it etc.  Likewise, when we were eating the fruit desert after dinner we had to peel an orange and eat it mindfully.  This last exercise was superb because one has a lot to be mindful of - the lush orange colour of the fruit, the soft feel of its skin, the feel of that skin under the thumbnail as we punctured it to get a starting point to peel it, the smell of the juices as they jumped from the peel literally to the nose and indeed to the eyes, the feel of the portions of orange and the pull as we separate them, the touch of the fruit on the tongue before the taste, the taste buds literally rejoicing in the sense of taste and so on and so forth.

In other words mindfulness or awareness or wakefulness means literally learning to be "in" the moment, to be "in" the experience, rather than doing the action unconsciously.  We do a lot of things unconsciously because that is they way we had to become to survive in a competitive world.   We have become so engrossed in what society demands of us on a day-to-day basis that we have learned to do things unconsciously.  How often have you driven to your place of work or indeed home without remembering the way you've come or anything that happened on the way?  This is a learned unconsciousness.  Likewise we can learn to become more conscious of, more attentive to, more mindful of, more aware of, more wakeful to our lives.  Such awareness to things can and will expell our preoccupations with concerns, worries, fears and anxieties of all kinds.  I will be returning to these concerns when I discuss CBT and REBT in these posts at a later time.

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