Saturday, February 26, 2011

Towards The Still Point 7

Living on Automatic Pilot

Santiago Calatrava's rotatable bridge, the Samuel Beckett, by night
So much of our lives are lived by sheer habit.  How often do we hear others say, "I am a creature of habit"?  Or perhaps you say it, too?  We do everything in the same old way, more than likely!  Indeed, we gain comfort from our repeated habits.  Another way of putting this is that we live on automatic pilot.  This is another way of acknowledging that we live unconsciously.  I suppose we have to do so very often if we are to maintain our sanity.  If we were to be conscious of everything we did we would be literally shattered.  On the other hand, to be totally unaware of things is to "throw in the towel" on personal choice and succumb to sheer monotony of life.  However, somewhere in the middle lies a balance, does it not? 

Now,  I don't wish to go off on a tangent here, but I wish momentarily to refer to Aristotle's theory of the mean:  The theory of the mean, which states that virtue is a point between two vices, is still influential in moral philosophy today. This theory of the mean is one of Aristotle's best-known pieces of ethical thinking. It can be found in his book The Nicomachean Ethics. It is at once strikingly simple and fiendishly difficult. In a nutshell, Aristotle said that virtues are a point of moderation between two opposite vices. For instance, the virtue of courage lies between the two vices of cowardice and recklessness. Recklessness is too much confidence and not enough fear, cowardice is too much fear and not enough confidence, courage is just the right amount of both. Some other examples that Aristotle laid out were temperance (or self-control), which lies between self-indulgence and a lack of sensitivity to your own needs, and modesty which is between bashfulness and vanity.  To my mind living mindfully lies at a STILL POINT somewhere between Total Unawareness (Total Unconsciousness) and Total Awareness (Total Consciousness).  On reflection these two extremes are impossibly in the pure sense of those terms, though we can veer towards either one.  Mindfulness for me is learning to have a tendency towards awareness, one which is balanced and which has no undercurrents of obsession.  Indeed mindfulness essentially brings balance with it as it presumes that we become aware of our own over-riding obsessions and prejudices when we work at it.  My apologies if these thoughts here are somewhat strained as I wish to underline what I mean by mindfulness and balance.

Getting beyond those Negative Automatic Thoughts

The Giants Causeway, Antrim
I cannot help referring here to what CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) refers to as Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs).  This is not simply because I have been doing a certificate course in REBT at the moment, but because I have long been aware of the negative tapes I play in my own mind, thankfully to a lesser extent these days, and to my constant teaching efforts to get students to change their negative tapes to positive ones.  This effort can be hard indeed as I am a Resource and Learning Support Teacher concerned with teaching academically weak students who have been on the receiving end of constant criticism over their ability or inability in various subjects over the years.  Before I even begin teaching them English or Maths,  I spend endless hours building up their self-confidence and belief in themselves.  I do this while I'm teaching X or Y or Z, and because I have small numbers in my classes I can stop the lesson and listen to their concerns and use various tips or tricks or strategies and tactics that I've learnt over the years from many teaching courses and from various courses in philosophy and psychology that I've done.

It's so easy to be negative, and so easy to be self-critical, simply because that is the way we have been brought up by both our families and from society at large.  And, needless to say the Media is constantly conspiring to convince us that we are not good enough.  No wonder we spontaneously think in a negative sense all the time.  Advertisements constantly tell us that our houses, our clothes, our cars or our domestic items are not the latest models, and hence are not good enough.  It's so easy then for individuals, and many of them high achievers, too, to believe that they are not good enough and will never be good enough in themselves.  Joe or Jane has this or that and they are this or that which I am not.  How dreadful and how tragic to see a young beautiful girl, or a young talented boy, become anorexic because they believe that they are ugly.  I'm working with a 16 year old boy who believes he is ugly.  These beliefs - irrational as they are - come from somewhere - mainly from the lies society sells as the truths of existence.   I am training him to learn to replace these NATs with Positive Thoughts.  I am loathe to call them PATs because Positive thoughts are not automatic unfortunately, but I have told him he must give himself pats on the back each morning like "I am as good as X or Y" or "I am OKAY", "I am as good looking as anyone else." etc until they become automatic PATs.  

And then school compounds these lies by telling students they are not good enough unless they reach certain standards.  Here, I believe that our school system, and most school systems in The Western World need to teach subjects such as Philosophy, Psychology and/or Personal Development alongside the more academic and physical pursuit subjects.  In this way we can encourage our students to be (i) more aware of the more obvious and even the more surreptitious and subliminal messages of The Media which reflects the superficial goals of society.  This is one sure way to decrease the phenomenon of suicide among our young people, especially our young men here in Ireland.  Then also (ii) we can encourage them to act more positively in their own lives without succumbing to depression or any other negative outcomes in their lives.

Even when I awoke this morning I have found myself engaging in negative thoughts like: (i) I should have done all that washing up and that ironing last night, (ii) I wasted my time looking at that late night film last evening, (iii) I have too much to do, (iv) I'm back at work on Monday, (v) I haven't applied for my tax repayments for my medical expenses for the past two years - I hate filling in all the forms, (v) I've been too lazy to get the immersion heater in the hot press fixed, and so on and so on.  To go on would be to bore the reader.  Yet, it is important to realise that this is a pattern of negative thinking.  I stopped myself in my tracks and said to myself: "So what?  I enjoyed that film last night as I really relaxed.  The world is not going to end because I have X, Y, Z still to do.  I will tackle them piecemeal after I have looked at the election results; read a little on Schopenhauer's philosophy which I love, looked at the TV to see the election results coming in now quite quickly; had my very late breakfast-cum-lunch etc.  Then, I still have two days to get all this work done, but it will be slowly and meditatively done after all, as I deeply believe in living mindfully.  Even writing these notes here is a mindful exercise for me.  That's the whole point of my blog actually.  It slowly emerged from my personal concerns and reading as a way of mindfully getting to grips which what human life means for one individual, one small minuscule dot in space, called Tim Quinlan.  So, it's my personal project, my life project to make meaning out of this chance conscious existence that I'm living - in a similar way to which Sartre talks about the project which each person's life is and that this is the only freedom we have.

Getting back in Control of Me = Getting back in Control of Life

Many years ago I learnt from the great psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Tony Humphreys that "all control is self control."  The only thing I can control in this life is my own life.  I can never control others, not even my pupils.  What I can do is inspire them to the self-control that I possess and in that way the class will become ordered.  Fear is not a good way to teach and never has been and never will be.  Getting back in control of me is another way of saying that I am not in control of life itself, insofar as I only know life through my own perceptions of it in the first place.  I will return now to Professor Paul Gilbert's inspiring text The Compassionate Mind (Constable, 2010) to conclude this timely post, where he argues:

Mindfulness can also be used to direct attention to specific elements and aspects of our lives.  We take control over what we attend to rather than allowing our attention to be directed to whatever emotions happen to be activated at the time.  So much of our lives are lived on automatic pilot; we're just floating along on the currents of feelings and shifting brain states as we engage in everyday life.  But suppose we actually chose to refocus our attention in a way that we want to.  Suppose we practise having a fresh focus to our attention through imagining ourselves as aliens, or we practise focusing and attending to things we enjoy, like and appreciate.  In this way we can start to take control over the patterns we want to be created in our brains.  This is one of the most exciting and important understandings of modern psychology. (Op. cit., pp.269-270)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Towards The Still Point 6

Other Practical Exercises to help us on Our Way

River Liffey at night - 10 second exposure
Travelling towards The Still Point can be arduous, and some people either just give up on trying to achieve it (laziness is a good excuse here) or just succumb to exhaustion through working far too hard in anything and everything they do.  However, there are practical things we can do to help us on our journey.  So, if you cannot enter into the world of meditative practices in any way readily or with any ease, there are other things you can do before trying it.

1. Physical Exercise:

The importance of physical exercise can never be over-estimated.  For the stressed out, the worried or anxious person, adequate physical exercise can bring a fair amount of necessary relief.  As well as that, there will be the benefits of better health.  Physical exercise can, of course, include cycling, digging the garden, taking a walk in nature as well as something as obviously athletic like running, jogging, playing physical sports or swimming etc.  Walking to work, or even part of the way there, can also be good.

2. Other Pastimes:

There are almost as many pastimes as there are people - well maybe, not quite.  I hardly need to list these here, but playing chess, checkers and card games come to mind immediately.  Then there are many hobbies like collecting coins, comics, stamps, model cars and model buses etc.  The possibilities are legion.  Going to the cinema or theatre are other pastimes, not to mention watching DVDs of favourite movies etc.  All of these activities help the hassled soul to unwind.

3.  Sensory Focusing 

I have briefly referred to these in my second last post.  Using the senses in a focused way would include using stress balls or tennis balls, closing one's eyes and attending to the sensory feeling of these objects.  The use of examples of various materials (stuck to a large card) is also very effective to stimulate the senses.  I have seen teachers use this idea most effectively in class with our ASD students.  In fact most OTs and specialists in SEN recommend a sensory room and any sort or all sorts of sensory stimulation for this type of student.  Outside that, I have found it wonderful for the so-called "ordinary" or neurotypical student, not to mention for myself, the teacher, too.

4. Grounding or Anchoring the Self

In Arab and other countries in the East people use objects like worry beads to anchor or ground themselves.  These worry beads help them stay focused and to remain calm.  I personally have known persons who had a favourite stone they carried around with them in their pocket.  The stone (one they may have picked up from a beach when they went for a walk with someone who was/is very significant in their lives; when they were happy and alone; when they were relaxed and young or whatever) is most likely a very special one to them.  When they touch the object, be it worry beads, rosary beads, a religious medal or whatever, they are able to reconnect with the former calm and relaxed feeling or with a lovely memory they associate with the particular object.

One may, of course, ground oneself through some of the other senses too, e.g., the smell of certain scents - aromatherapy; the sound of certain types of music;  the sight of a wonderful scene from nature and so on.

5.  Being Alone: Aloneness

I have already written many posts on the question of tranquility or aloneness or solitude as Dr Anthony Storr calls it. (See Solitude Storr)  He has stressed that aloneness (a totally different reality to loneliness) or solitude is most important in the development of self acceptance and individuation.  He also stresses that it is an essential ingredient in the lives of all creative people.  Taking time away from others is an essential, especially these days when the world can be so noisy, demanding and stressful.

6. Practising Checking In or Mindfulness in the Here and Now

New Conference Centre, Dublin, 10 second exposure
A friend of mine who is an instructor in focusing therapy as recommended by Dr. Eugene Gendlin and also is an instructor in NLP recommends that when we get stressed we should check in with our body by noticing where the body is paining us at the moment, that is, focusing or giving our attention to where the stress is being held by the body at this moment.  As a classroom teacher I used always check in with my body when I went to the press to get something - in this way, it was never too obvious what I was doing.  I could have been just looking for something in the press.  Acknowledging the body always relaxes us, as it recognises the main symptoms of the stress.  One might also if one has the time or the opportunity to check in with the feelings as well.  However, sometimes one might not get that opportunity if one is dealing with urgent matters in one's work.

7.  Pretending One is an Alien

Years ago when I was a sixth year student at school, I remember that there was a textbook called The Moral Life which began with the conceit where the author invited his/her reader to pretend that they were a Martian coming to Planet Earth for the first time.  S/he invited the reader to then observe the behaviours of the earthlings and to infer moral values from those actions.  Professor Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind (Constable, 2010) asks us to engage in the same game so that we may learn to become more aware, more mindful or more awakened in our interaction with the world.  I'll finish this post with that author's description of what pretending to be an alien can achieve for us:

Imagine that you come from a very different planet, maybe where there is little light and the sky is dark, and you're visiting Earth for the first time.  You are fascinated by everything you see and sense - by the sky and its ever-changing patterns, the smell and feel of the air, the sounds around you, the colours of the trees and grass.  Allow yourself to be amazed and fascinated by the greenness of living plants.  The idea is to begin playfully to experience the world anew, to bring freshness to your perceptions and senses.  (Op. cit., p. 266)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Towards The Still Point 5 - A Brief Poetic Interlude

T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot at around 40 years old
I have referred often in these pages to the great poets of English literature, viz., our own W.B. Yeats  (1865 – 1939) and Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965)  Both these poets, the latter modernist through and through while the former could be considered so in tendency, sought their inspiration from all sources.  Neither was a typical writer of his era.  Both were eccentrics in many ways; indeed, one might say walking conrtradictions.  However, perhaps such is the lot of any great poet?  Please note that I am a lover of poems and can in no sense call myself a critic of poetry per se, hence do not look for complete literary critical accuracy here. 

Anyone who has read T.S. Eliot will realise that he is steeped in philosophy.  This is in no way surprising as he graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in that subject and went on to study it both at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Merton College, Oxford.   Most important, from the point of view of a reader like me with an interest in Eastern philosophy and in meditation that T.S. Eliot was rich enough to be able to support himself at these various colleges in Europe and at home in the States, and that he also had the luxury to spend three post-graduate years at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit.  By 1916, he had completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard on Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, but he chose not to return to the States for the viva voce exam.

However, what I am about in this post here is a very brief look at T.S. Eliot's reference to The Still Point in perhaps his greatest poetic work, that is, The Four Quartets.  Let me begin this post with a relevant, apt and perspicacious quotation from Terry L. Fairchild of The Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa, U.S.A: 

Thomas Stearns Eliot was a set of contradictions. An American from St. Louis, he moved to England and took British citizenship. A man who had always wanted to be a poet, he studied philosophy at Harvard. A writer who filled his poetry with Eastern philosophy, he converted to Anglicanism. One of the world's great intellectuals, Eliot read detective fiction and wrote limericks about cats in his spare time. The most revolutionary poet of his age (who literally changed the direction of poetry), he is now seen by post-structuralists as a crypto-fascist. These same kinds of opposing characteristics exist everywhere in Eliot's poetry and nowhere more than in his masterpiece Four Quartets. Often called a "negative poet" for his unrelenting attack on modern life in his earlier works, in the Four Quartets he sees things differently. The life of time and change that he had previously depicted as the "wasteland" is in the Four Quartets found to be supported by an underlying, spiritual absolute, a level of life where the two extremes of time and timeless are indistinguishable. Moreover, Eliot espouses the experience of this transcendental field as the spiritually transforming value of all life both for the individual and the world. Therefore, in Eliot's last and greatest poetic effort we find not a negative or dualistic view of life after all, but rather the vision of a man who passionately believed in a spiritual unity.  (See this link here: TSE Terry F

T.S. Eliot towards the end of his life
With these above observations in mind, I wish to place hereunder T.S. Eliot's preoccupation with Eastern Philosophy and Meditation Practices in the form of his poetic description of The Still Point from BURNT NORTON (No. 1 of 'Four Quartets,' perhaps his greatest poem!) Eliot regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and it is the work that led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical—and its relation to the human condition. Each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
(Beginning at line sixteen of Part II of Burnt Norton):

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;


Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,


But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,


Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,


Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,


There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.


I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.


And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.


The inner freedom from the practical desire,


The release from action and suffering, release from the inner


And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded


By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,


Erhebung without motion, concentration


Without elimination, both a new world


And the old made explicit, understood


In the completion of its partial ecstasy,


The resolution of its partial horror.


Yet the enchainment of past and future


Woven in the weakness of the changing body,


Protects mankind from heaven and damnation


Which flesh cannot endure.


Time past and time future


Allow but a little consciousness.


To be conscious is not to be in time


But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,


The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,


The moment in the draughty church at smokefall


Be remembered; involved with past and future.


Only through time time is conquered.

Towards The Still Point 4

Mindfulness Deepens us


Newly cut tree stump, Phoenix Park, February, 2009
I remember once attending some lectures by the late great William Johnston, S.J., on how to meditate.  This great Jesuit has written many books on the topic of meditation and mindfulness.  I remember someone asking the question as to whether one can get mentally disturbed persons to meditate.  As far as I can remember the answer was "no," though with some qualifications which I cannot at this juncture in time recall.  I am currently working with a young boy of 16 years of age at school - he has Asperger's Syndrome with comorbid OCD.  Unfortunately the OCD has the upper hand at the moment and his levels of anxiety are extremely high.  I have attempted to use meditation with him on many occasions just to get him to relax in himself, but mostly this has not really worked.  He is, as yet, far too agitated to engage in meditative practices.  His professional team from the HSE are of the opinion that it is only when the prescribed medicine kicks in can they begin his CBT therapy.  From my experience of working with this boy, they are indeed correct.

On a personal level mindfulness can disturb us, can literally shake our foundations and cause no little upheaval.  This is a fact I can readily agree with.  As we begin meditating a lot of material from the unconscious can and does come up.  But having lived through such experiences I can say that, while they may be disturbing initially, they can be very wholesome in the final analysis once they are properly integrated into the psyche.  Now, I have long been a reader (even a disciple) of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustave Jung and many of the other great psychiatrists and psychotherapists since who owe so much to these founding fathers of therapy.  In general, I believe that these founding fathers got the main thing in mental health right, that is, that "making the unconscious conscious" is a goal of all psychotherapy and that the integration of both is also a supreme and wholesome goal.  Many psychologists realise that meditation in all its forms and incarnations, call these practices mindfulness or awareness or wakefulness or by whatever synonym you wish, is an important skill to develop which can and does help us in bringing about self-realization, self-actualization, integration or individuation or wholeness.

Getting Beyond Agitation

Mucky grass, Phoenix Park, February, 2009
Firstly I can only stress and underline here that proper medical attention and intervention is required when the person is agitated.  It is only when agitation has been stemmed that any form of talk therapy, art therapy or music or drama therapy can be used. 

I have found that simple physical activities can work with my ASD class.  I have been bringing my class of 6 first years to the P.E. hall for some simple games where they can learn how simple team games work, like passing a ball from one to another using various combinations of rules.  I luckily enough have the help of two other adults who are both trained SNAs.  To improve their proprioceptive awareness (that is the awareness of their bodies which many ASD students have difficulty with) we get them to roll on mats - a simple exercise which they all like.  What I am getting at here is that physical exercise is also good to get rid of certain forms of agitation associated with ADD, ADHD and ODD, and also with certain forms associated with ASD.  Now with the young man I have referred to above, physical activity like I have described is not enough.  However, it is also important that this young boy gets exercise, too.

Another thing that works with my students on the ASD spectrum is the use of stress balls and various other objects that they can manipulate.  Therefore, it is often a good thing to say buy say a box of tennis balls and give each candidate a ball for either hand, get them to close their eyes and concentrate on becoming aware of the pressure of their hands and fingers on the ball and attempting in their mind to get in touch with the texture and actual feeling of the balls in their hands.  You can have a bit of fun with this, too - I'll leave that to the reader's imagination!  Now tennis balls or even variously shaped stones can also be good to use even with neuro-typical mediators like you and me and the ordinary students in any class.

Allowing Feelings to Arise Within

Over the years I have found that various feelings can and do emerge, feelings that one may have repressed or suppressed over the years, when I meditate.  Some fifteen years ago I remember that I used to often end up becoming very sad and even used cry many times when I meditated.  This was not too surprising as my father had passed away in 1993.  However, in line with true meditation practices, I stayed with it and just observed the feelings as they were arising and flowing away in my body.  There was no use getting upset, I knew.  I just went with the natural expression of emotions in my body.  After all, that's what emotions are.  Maybe I'm being a little too obvious here when I say that emotion is really e-motion or the movement of natural energies around the body.  Other emotions that can come up are repressed anger, guilt or shame or whatever.  I do intend to explore each of these feelings in later posts when I write a little in this blog about the uses of CBT and especially REBT in Rational Emotive Education.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Towards The Still Point 3

Introduction

Sunset, Phoenix Park, June, 2006
If you have been reading these last several posts you will now be tired of my repeating like a mantra that life is a journey.  Here I would like to repeat like yet another mantra that life is stressful.  I suppose it has always been stressful even back to the earliest of times when we were mere cavemen and cavewomen in Stone Age caves.  The men were hunters and gatherers while their women were nurturers and rearers of children.  One of the most important automatic or reflex responses that early humans developed was that of the Fight or Flight Response.  This was an important natural response to develop because if we had not developed it we simply would have been eaten by the nearest predator. 

The term Fight or Flight is a reference to the fact that we may at times be faced with dangers or threats that will require us to respond by either fleeing or defending ourselves (an ancient response developed for our survival in ancient times as I have explained above).  This anxiety response enables us to do so, with added energy, alertness and strength, so that we can escape without injury or at least minimize injury when possible. This is accomplished by the adrenal glands that respond to danger signals from the brain and provide increased levels of adrenal hormones, the main one being “adrenaline”.  Once the level of adrenaline rises, breathing increases, as well as blood flow to the muscles. The body will begin to sweat which according to anxiety research, may be the body’s way of creating more difficulty in being grasped and held by an intruder, due to the skin becoming slippery with moisture. All of these bodily responses are designed to protect us but danger signals may at times be sent to the adrenal glands, from the brain, when no actual danger is present, such as when viewing a movie thriller or riding a scary amusement park ride.

Sky, Phoenix Park, June, 2006
This response is literally harded-wired into us from prehistoric and primordial times because it was so necessary for our survivalToday we have become almost victims of this natural response.  We no longer have to flee from our enemies or fight them off as often as we did when we were cavemen and cavewomen.  However, this response happens to us when we are in any stressful, though often not physically threatening, situations like speaking in front of others, studying for an important exam or interview, going for medical tests, driving our cars to and from work, fighting our way through the crowds in modern cities, facing a job we hate, rearing obstreperous children etc.  To this extent anxiety becomes “disordered” and it begins to trigger at times it is not actually needed. It may then be perceived as very unpleasant because increased energy levels are becoming available when they are not needed. Not being able to channel the Fight or Flight symptoms in a positive direction will cause a person to perceive them as fear rather than strength or as panic feelings, rather than the ambition needed to accomplish a task at hand.  Some few individuals develop what are called Panic Attacks which are extremely disempowering and which does require appropriate therapy to relieve the dreadful sysmptoms and hopefully get to the root cause.

Here I wish to offer a brief stress reduction exercise which I have written for my students at school.  I do hope the reader will find this helpful:

                                           Stress Reduction Meditation
  • Sit in a relaxed position, perhaps on an upright kitchen chair. Keep your back straight with your feet flat on the floor. You could also sit on the floor in your bedroom, with your back against the wall and your legs crossed in front of you.


  • Close your eyes. Concentrate on how you feel. Check in with all the parts of your body beginning with the top of your head. Notice if there is any feeling or stress there. Then bring your attention to your face and notice how that feels…Then do the same for your neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, knees, ankles and toes.


  • As you progress down through your body, you will notice that you are becoming more and more relaxed.


  • Next concentrate on your breathing. Just notice how quickly or slowly you are breathing. If you are breathing too quickly, slow your breath down to a nice even and peaceful pace.


  • If you notice stress in any area of your body, imagine that area filled with black dots and each time that you breathe out imagine that you are breathing out that stressful black patch, dot by dot. You are breathing in the bright energy of the sun which will bit by bit dispel that black area of stress.


  • Once again call to mind how peaceful and relaxed you are. There is no pain, no stress, and no turbulence in your body. There is no stress, no strain, and no turbulence in your life. Everything is relaxed, peaceful and as it should be.

  • Become aware of how good it is to live in your body. It is your body, and your body is good and healthy and relaxed. You received your body as a gift from your parents, and ultimately from God.


  • Become aware of how good it is to be you, to be the person who you are, with all your gifts and talents. You can learn to live with all your bad points too. Those that you can change, you will attempt to do so. Those that you can’t change you will have to learn to accept. The whole point is to be comfortable with yourself. Just as you are comfortable in your body now, just as you are relaxed in your body now, you become relaxed and comfortable with the person who you really are.


  • Once again become aware of your body, what it feels like as you sit now on the chair or on the floor in your bedroom. Try and become aware also of your heartbeat. Notice how peaceful it is, how slow and dependable and strong it is. It is what keeps you alive.


  • Now begin gently to move your fingers and toes. Begin to open your eyes gradually and come back to an awareness of the room.
  • It might help also if you put this meditation on tape and read it out slowly with a little gentle background music. That way you could listen to the tape on a Walkman as you meditate.

Towards The Still Point 2

Introduction

Sky, Phoenix Park, June, 2006
In my last post I mentioned the most important fact that we are as it were, to use a metaphor, pilgrims "in via" or "on the way."  I also alluded to the fact that central to all religious and spiritual traditions is the notion or metaphor of journey.   The notion of pilgrimage to a holy place has long been a traditional practice is practically all major religious traditions.  The Christian likes to travel to Rome, Palestine, Jerusalem, Bethlehem or even more spiritually enriching travelling by foot to say a holy place like Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia, Spain. The city's Cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important 9th century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.   I know many people who have done this particular pilgrimage either in whole or in part.  It is a deeply healthy and whole thing to do, even if one is not a Christian as we physically enact the spiritual journey that is life.

Towards the Still Point: Mindful Breathing or Mindful Rhythmic Breathing

However, we can also journey metaphorically in our minds without even lifting or moving a foot.  I have already stated that learning to practise "mindfulness" or "awareness" or "wakefulness" is one step on our metaphoric journey to the STILL POINT of self/universe. Now I will introduce a second practise which will also help us on our pilgrim way.  This practice is called "Mindful breathing" or "Mindful Rhythmic Breathing."  This is quite simple really as it involves becoming aware literally of our breathing.  I have also added in here the notion of rhythm.  Anthropologists and other experts stress that the notion of rhythm is one of the most primordial of qualities that are natural to us humans.  It is not only modern humankind which likes to dance.  All dance began in ancient tribal dance which are based on the natural rhythms within the nature of the human being.  The most basic rhythm we have is that of the heart beat, and anthropologists, if my memory serves right, maintain that the origins of all rhythms lie in the rhythm of our heart.  Needless to say, the rhythms of our heart are linked with the rhythms of our breath.  One of the things I like to do when I am meditating is (i) become aware of my breath as I breathe in and out slowly, (ii) slowly feel the movement of my breath as it rises and falls by placing my hand gently on my diaphragm and (iii) after some time become aware finally of my heartbeat, which surprisingly one may find anywhere in the body depending on the way you am sitting or whatever.

Distractions:

Beginners and improvers at meditation always mention the fact that their minds become distracted that a myriad of things and preoccupations, even silly and stupid things keep arises in their mind.  This is quite natural as we have what has been rather accurately and metaphorically described as "a grass hopper mind" which literally is prone to hop all over the place.  The beauty of mindful breathing is that one keeps bring one's focus back to the breath, that is we use the breath as a focal point or anchor, to use yet another image, to keep our minds tethered or focussed on the breath.  The whole point is never to deny that you are distracted.  The point is to acknowledge the distraction and simply let it go and return to the focal point or anchor point of the breath.  Another way of doing this is simply to say to yourself:  "notice and return, notice and return... notice and return..." and say these words with the rhythm of your breath.

Some people like to use a lighted candle or a flower or a statue or a small altar as a focal.  While I have personally used all these things I prefer simply to close my eyes.  Some meditators prefer leaving their eyes half closed.  Others still us a mantra or a short phrase, be it religious or other secular but meaningful phrase again used in a rhythmic way in concordance with the breath.

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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Elusive Still Point 2

Lack of Centre: The Still Point Could Not Hold


Spinning Wheel, Ionad an Bhlascaoid, 2005
In the last post I gave a descriptive definition of Still Point describing it thus: The ability to attain Solid Ground in the NOW is what I mean by THE STILL POINT of existence, and it is rather like a Viewing Point from where we can view the path we have travelled upward on our journey. It is also a point from where we can view the rest of the journey we have to make. However, the real point about this Viewing Point is that we can objectively observe the whole Vista or Panorama before us without getting caught up in either the path travelled or the path to be travelled that lies before us. The point is that this Viewing Point or place of Solid Ground is a STILL POINT, an objective place from where we can objectively observe what is happening in our bodies and in our minds right here in the Now.

Now let me use another image for this STILL POINT : a classical image this time, that of the HUB of the WHEEL.  This is a potent and powerful image that appeals visually to me.  When a many-spoked wheel is spinning quickly one can see the centre of the wheel or hub as stationary, yet all the forces of the spokes are centripetally running towards the central stationary point.  With my school physics I know this and understanding one of Newton's basic laws of motion that to each and every force in the individual spoke there is an equal and opposite one on the circumference of the wheel wanting to pull away from the force tethering it at the hub.  This equal and opposite force is called the centrifugal force.  That's all the physics I know really as regards the wheel.  Yet this basic law is a wonderful one is it not to explain imaginatively the power of THE STILL POINT?   In other words, the TETHERING HUB is an image par excellence for this STATIONARY POINT or STILL POINT.

The Centre did not hold during The Celtic Tiger Era:

I am reminded here of the tragedy of The Celtic Tiger years in Ireland when literally the nation as a whole had no central hub, no stationary point, no still point from which to balance its onward motion, no point of equanimity of soul.  In fact, in the visionary and prophetic words of our greatest national poet, W.B. Yeats(1865 – 1939) the truth was stated thus in his wonderful poem The Second Coming:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Irish kitchen dresser, Ionad an Bhlascaoid

Indeed during The Celtic Tiger Era the leaders of the Irish Nation, The Bankers and the Speculators lost all sense of reality. In other words the wheel they were spinning in had no hub at all. The very spokes of that imaginal wheel flew apart and were scattered in a tsunami of greed into a great Black Hole which sucked the very life and soul out of the whole nation. Yes indeed, we must point the finger. We must blame those who are to be blamed, and hopefully put these rudderless gamblers into prison. They sold the nation a lie, a lie which all too many of us swallowed whole. We are not blameless, indeed, but let's be objective, too, our leaders were the main culprits, be they politicians, bankers, investors, speculators and all their over-paid henchmen (I use this word advisedly as pretty few if any women were involved in this corruption first hand: they merely comforted their men in their downfall!) who sold the lie of endless wealth to the small fish in the pond.


If one good thing comes from the death of The Celtic Tiger mentality it may be the reviving of The Celtic Soul which has lain lifeless for far too long now. New breath and life needs to breathed into that national soul. We need a need a new ethics, a new brotherhood and sisterhood of a proper and a real Republic which embraces all her children equally. With a spiritual centre or hub, things will stop flying apart and the centre will hold, and mere anarchy will be halted in its onward march - it will, indeed have to beat a retreat. We need a national STILL POINT or CENTRE or HUB or STATIONARY POINT or SOLID GROUND or VIEWING POINT from which to progress as a people and as a nation that values all its children equally. Now this is no mere pipe dream. It was not countenanced during the Era of THE CELTIC TIGER (dead and gone, thankfully, and hopefully forever!) because greed and more greed became a soul-consuming philosophy. In the metaphoric words of Jesus Christ, "What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul." I quote these wise and profound words here not in a religious sense but in a spiritual one where by soul I mean all that marks us humans out as different from our animal brothers and sisters - our imagination, our vision, our values, our loves, our hopes, our ethics, our morals, our vision, our goals, our dreams, our unity in diversity, our music, our creativity in all its incarnations, our open-handed embracing of differences, our loving and compassionate linked arms around this hurting world and so on and so forth!