The ‘work’ begins when meditation ends.


I have been meditating now for over a decade. My practice is mixed – some days 30 minutes, some days a couple of hours; sunrise, on the occasions I see it, is a favourite time to meditate for a longer period. Indulgently I love meditative days, often at weekends, when interruptions are likely to be less frequent. Silence, limited access to technology and just being -doing whatever tasks need to be done and sitting frequently. I try as much as possible to be meditative and mindful on a regular basis.

I’ve spoken in other posts about expectation when commencing meditation. I think mine was this notion that it alone would bring some respite, peace to the  pace of my mind and of life generally. Of course it did. Sitting silently with awareness on the breath is a great refuge from all that goes on. However, in the early days of meditation I struggled to build a deeper connection between me as meditator and me in the rest of my life! Just as in the cartoon above I found things still came up,  ruminating about the past, anxiety about the future, difficult feelings of anger, fear. All are natural arising of thoughts within  the mind but I struggled to understand how meditation would offer something more than temporary respite, however welcome that may be

The turning point for me was the realisation many years ago, the real ‘work’ begins for ourselves outside of meditation and sitting. It brings an insight and awareness of ourselves that is as profound as it is sometimes ugly but is only one part of a process, a door to how we deal with all the difficult stuff that comes up in life. Observing anger, rumination etc head on, with tenderness allows us to  see them for what they are, patterns of the mind developed over time with a belief they would help us  or without being conscious at all.  We also see, however, the damage our way of thinking of does to ourself or others. Observation  and the mental space that  meditation creates enables us to take responsibility for  how we see and react to the world and ultimately let go of ways of thinking that no longer serves us or others

It is a continuous journey, there will inevitably be times when we are pulled back and caught by circumstance but over time we can find that our practice becomes transformative. This year particularly my experience of that transformation has peaked. It has been a year of external transformation of job, of life, of habits. This period of change has meant periods of not knowing, of discomfort (not physical but just that which comes with the unknown) and I have observed, often like an electric storm, some of the old paths of thinking become charged again. Yet like a storm these moments have been fleeting and quickly dissipated – reacting  angrily or worrying excessively becomes the exception rather than the norm and we realise the work we have done has borne fruit, the space of being able to experience life moment to moment, simply as it is.





Good ? Bad ? Who knows


How many times have you contemplated an event in the future, work or social  and judged it before it even happens?, only to find out that your judgement wasn’t even close to the reality. The social event you judged to be awful turned out to be great, the work meeting you thought would achieve nothing was actually constructive.

Equally, when events happen in our lives unexpectedly we often rush to assess its negative aspects before we consider the positive aspects of a situation. That is not to say ‘bad’ things do not happen and we may be right to judge them as such but too often our minds are engaged in excessive habitual judgements. One of the best illustrations of the fallacy of this tendency is the parable of the chinese farmer. It reads

Once there was a Chinese farmer who worked his poor farm together with his son and their horse. When the horse ran off one day, neighbors came to say, “How unfortunate for you!” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

When the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses, the neighbors gathered around and exclaimed, “What good luck for you!” The farmer stayed calm and replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
While trying to tame one of wild horses, the farmer’s son fell, and broke his leg. He had to rest up and couldn’t help with the farm chores. “How sad for you,” the neighbors cried. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer.
Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the farmer’s village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders. Many died. But the farmer’s son had been left out of the fighting because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, “What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!” “Maybe yes, maybe no,” was all the farmer said

The farmer rebuffs the natural tendency to label a situation good or bad. He is the ‘voice’ of the space that develops as we become more mindful and start to drop the traditional and constant narrative of judgement of our experience. As my  mindfulness practice  develops and my awareness has increased I have found that there is an ability to see an emerging judgement for what it is… ‘a thought’.  To let it emerge, dissipate or maybe become something more substantive but to avoid the need to immediately react.

The practice is not easy and we can all slip into habitual panics as we approach new situations and judge them .  In reality though the habitual judgement has no legs and mindfulness encourages us to be open to the present moment experientially . The benefit? To approach situations more openly, with a lightness, as we are freed of the ‘defense’ of the thinking mind. To see that experience rarely falls between the extremes of good and bad, but has an ambiguity and a beauty more open than the narrow limitations of good luck or bad luck.



Unconditional Friendship To Ourselves

One of the things I continue to be struck by, and have been reminded of through conversations recently, is how tough we can be on ourselves.

I talk about it as a follow on to my recent post on  meditation and mindfulness, because when we stop our busy lives, even for a moment, difficult things come up in our ‘thinking’. Not least what I call ‘RADIO-ME’ the background hum of our internal dialogue, much like a radio, that isn’t positive about where we are in the present moment.

We are often aware of it and in meditation it can sound a lot louder and sometimes will put people off committing to a regular and committed practice.

So what does this voice sound like? It differs from person to person but usually it will have a core pattern. It is a voice of judgement, of what we did or didn’t do right in the past. It is a voice of unrealistic expectation, asking us to push ourselves in a way that is not good for our wellbeing. It is the opinionated voice of ‘facts’ about who we are- I am selfish, I’m not clever enough etc etc, I shouldn’t have done x y z.

It’s existence is detrimental to our wellbeing. To be clear here, we are not talking about the gentle voice of reflection, the supportive voice of learning or the encouraging voice that wants to see you do well but rather the gnawing voice of what we commonly call ‘our own worst critic’

There is though a way to counteract this tendency we have. The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron, who turned 81 this last week, is one of the best exponents of the process of ‘maitri’ (pronounced my tree). It is the practice of loving kindness or as she calls it beautifully Unconditional Friendship to Ourselves. 

It is a practice of developing a loving kindness for ourselves. I have practiced it for a number of years and still sometimes I find it hard, particularly when times are challenging and uncomfortable, and the old negative voice begins to take hold. Yet like any loving kindness it requires cultivation and commitment. So how do we do that? There are a number of ways to develop a practice of ‘maitri’:

  1. By acknowledging the existence of a sometimes negative voice but not engaging with it ‘negatively’. It is inevitable that sometimes we will feel bad  about ourselves and to some degree this can have some benefit where we may have behaved for instance in anger but engaging and ruminating with internal negative dialogue is draining and damaging. Instead we can acknowledge it, trust ourselves to learn from it where appropriate and replace it with…
  2. Positive affirmation. I am good enough for this. I do deserve that to happen. I have worked hard and done well to achieve x. It doesn’t have to be some over the top recited mantra, unless that’s your thing, but to find it consider the voice you use to talk to friend when they think they have screwed up and use that more to talk to yourself because guess what..
  3. The voice of negativity is not always right, so surround yourself to help you with people who will help counterbalance sometimes our own internal negative bias. As well as these people you will need moments of..
  4. Self care. I am not talking here about retail therapy or distraction therapy (gin being my choice on that one) but genuine moments of quiet and time for ourselves when we can learn to accept and love who we are.

I have found all of the above useful in developing a good relationship with myself. We are not perfect, we will screw up but that is part of the deal, the rich vista of life. Our understanding and learning from that should feel positive and grounded in compassion for ourselves. For it is that self compassion which is the basis of our care and love for others.

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