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How PIGS can help when meditating...

When I first undertook mindfulness training, I was taught a sequence of steps to follow when self-guiding a meditation, and I’ve come to recognise this as being incredibly useful information. When I began to train as a mindfulness teacher, I noticed that some of the other trainee teachers seemed to ‘rush to the breath’ when guiding meditations. I subsequently discovered that they were not really aware of the significance of these initial stages of a meditation, as they’d not been taught about them, and to be fair, although they’re usually found in recordings they’re not immediately obvious, unless made explicit.

Earlier this year, I worked with Ruth Farenga & Karen Asprey at Mindful Pathway to develop a ‘graduate’ course for people who have completed an 8-week course, and wish to deepen their mindfulness practice. We decided to include this information, along with an acronym that I developed to help me when guiding myself in practice, and also when teaching: PIGS. The letters stand for; posture, intention (and motivation), grounding and settling. I know some of the course participants have found this useful, so I thought it would be beneficial to explore it here.

Let’s look at each step in turn. When we start a ‘formal’ mindful meditation, that is to say, we come to sit in our practice, rather than bringing mindfulness into our life in other ways, we are marking out this time and space in our life as a period of meditation. And in this particular type of practice (i.e. mindfulness, rather than any other meditation), we are intending to be awake and alert to our experience in each moment; to pay attention, and simultaneously to bring attitudes such as curiosity and kindness to our attention. So we begin by adopting a particular posture, this signals to mind and body that we are moving into the practice. But it also sets our body into a posture that reflects the way we wish our mind to be: Alert, awake and open, but at the same time relaxed, not striving or straining.

Why does this matter?
Well, we all recognise that our mind state is often reflected in our posture, we find this in body language: We can observe if people are feeling confident and alert, or sad and disconnected from us, simply by reading the ‘language’ of their body’s posture. But, in fact, it works just as strongly the other way around, and there’s a growing body of research that illustrates this. In one study, researchers asked people to watch a cartoon and rate how funny it was, but first they split them into two groups and asked one to hold a pencil between their teeth, and the other to hold a pencil between their lips. The result: The group holding the pencil between their teeth rated the cartoon as funnier. In this simple but ingenious experiment, both groups are doing something similar, and equally silly, but notice that those holding the pencil with their teeth were smiling - and their minds found the cartoon funnier [1]. Other research has shown how adopting a confident posture for a while before an interview situation results in the individual feeling more confident in the interview. So, we begin our practice by adopting a body posture that reflects the attitude we wish to hold with our mind: Awake, alert, dignified, but also relaxed and not straining.

Next we connect with our intention in the practice, for example, ‘to pay attention to our breath with curiosity and kindness’, or simply ’to be present in each moment’. We also reflect on our motivation, such as ‘to develop our full potential, and interact with others more compassionately’. It’s really important to develop an individual and genuine sense of what our motivation is, but it can be helpful if we find something within this that is not entirely self-referencing, as in the second part of that sentence. So it’s a case of finding our own words to express our personal motivation to practice. I also believe it’s valuable to genuinely reconnect with a sense of what motivation we’re holding, and avoid settling into a little mantra that we say to ourselves each time we practice.

Why does this matter?
Whenever we practice, we soon find that we have strayed from our intention; the mind wanders away from the object of our attention, such as the breath or sensations in the body, and we’re distracted. Holding a strong sense of our intention helps us to notice when we’re distracted, and being aware of our motivation to follow that intention strengthens our resolve to let go of distractions and come back to the present: Even when those distracting thoughts seem really interesting or important. It can help to think of motivation as being like a fuel that powers our intention.

The next stage is grounding; if you’ve been following guided meditations, you may recall hearing guidance to pay attention to the sensations of the body being supported, noticing the points of pressure or contact, feeling the weight of the body letting go into gravity, and so on. In this step we are inviting the mind into the body; we spend so much time ‘up in our heads’ that we can end up quite disconnected from our body, and lose touch with the feeling of being embodied.

Why does this matter?
If we begin to practise from this ‘heady’ position, we’re likely to remain distant and disembodied, and the practice can take on an ephemeral, transient quality. We’re also more readily drawn into an analytical, thought oriented experience, rather than a ‘felt’, embodied experience of the present. Also, during this grounding process, we come to feel supported, physically, as we sit, and so we develop a secure, solid and grounded basis for the meditation.

Settling is a process that is not always found in guided mindfulness meditations, but it can be a really helpful process to follow when guiding yourself, particularly if you’re coming from a very hectic or challenging part of your day. I find it helps to think of this as an encouragement for the mind to come to rest, and be less agitated, rather than a way to coerce or force it into settling, as the latter is almost bound to fail anyway. So we follow this step with an attitude of allowing the mind to settle, as much as it is willing, and not striving to change anything. There are several different ways to conduct this settling phase, and it’s worth trying them all from time to time, and finding what works best for you. You can count each in-breath, or out-breath, or both; just softly counting in the voice of your mind: ‘In-breath one, out-breath one… in-breath two, out-breath two…’ or simply counting ‘one… two… three… etc.’. Generally, it’s helpful to set a number to count up to, such as ten, and then beginning again if you loose track of counting, or reach the number. Alternatively, you can simply note each breath, so again; softly, in the voice of your mind, saying ‘Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…’ or just ‘in-breath… out-breath…’ Doing these things gives us dual points of attention, the breath and the counting, and can also help to keep our attention connected to each breath.

Why does this matter?
We tend not to realise that our minds have a natural tendency to settle; we unwittingly invest so much energy in thinking and as a result the mind is constantly energised and agitated. And if we do wish the mind would become quieter, we tend to assume we have to stop the thinking, and make our minds blank. Unfortunately, strategies to do this tend to make things worse. So in this step we gently apply energy to our focus on the breath and counting or noting, in doing so we encourage our minds to stay connected to this focus, and when the mind wanders, we disengage from the thoughts and gently return to our intended focus: The breath and counting or noting. Gradually, the mind may begin to settle.

From this point we move into the practice we have chosen to follow, such as mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of sound, or perhaps a meditation that moves through stages of breath, body, sounds and thoughts, until coming to rest in an open awareness. But how long to spend on each stage? Well, this is something that will vary, there is no right or wrong answer, but it’s wise to avoid becoming too rigid, after all, we’re aiming to switch off the autopilot and be present, not switch it on and run through a mindfulness meditation like a check list! So pay attention to your posture, rather than simply adopting it. Check in with your intention and motivation so they are felt, and the same with grounding; allow yourself to feel how the body is supported, and feel embodied too. Really allow yourself time here, you are building a secure, solid foundation to practice upon. And when it comes to settling, you may wish to count the next five breaths or spend five minutes noting each breath.

Finally, all of the above is offered in the hope that it might be of help when self-guiding a meditation; it is not intended to be comprehensive guidance in how to actually practice meditation. But hopefully, you’ll find PIGS helpful whenever you begin a self-guided meditation.

[1] Strack, F., Martin, L., Stepper, S., (1988) Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (5): 768-77
PubMed link.

Mindfulness and the Control Agenda.

Recently, I was delighted to be invited to lead a themed mindfulness sitting for a group in St. Albans, just outside London. I decided to work with the theme of the ‘control agenda’, and afterwards I thought it might be worth sharing this with a wider audience here, as it’s a subject that doesn’t seem to get discussed very often.

Before looking at the ways we get caught up in trying to control our thoughts, feelings and situations, let’s consider an important aspect of mindfulness meditation practices: They are a powerful way of learning how our minds work. This quote from Gilbert & Choden’s Mindful Compassion (New Harbinger, 2014) illustrates this point rather well:

“Mindfulness meditation actually means ‘becoming familiar with’ and ‘getting to know’ the mind, and the way we do this is through open attention and observation. This point cannot be over-emphasised.”

From this perspective, we can begin to see the distractions we encounter in mindfulness practice as the rich and fertile soil from which our mindfulness skills develop; as a way in which we can become more familiar with our minds. However, all too often we see distractions, such as a restless mind, as being a problem. We become frustrated, or self-critical: ‘I should be better at this, I’ve read all those books, listened to all those meditations, why can’t I stop my mind from wandering? Maybe I’m just no good at this.” When this happens, the challenge is to recognise that we’ve become caught up in a control agenda; we want to control our mind, to stop it from distracting us, and to make it become quiet, thus allowing us to maintain a rigid attention. Once we recognise that this is happening, we can identify this as another aspect of the way our minds work, and learn from it. So welcome the distraction, it really is a valuable part of our practice, rather than a failure, a problem or a difficulty. Learn to notice the patterns of distractions created by the mind and body, and also the subsequent reaction to them.

Sometimes we can also find a control agenda creeping into the way that we engage with our mindfulness practice, and this has the potential to be quite destructive to our long-term practice, so it’s worth looking at more closely. This most often occurs when we attempt to control our internal experience, such as by relaxing, or when we turn away from our experience, such as by distracting ourselves.

Let’s start by considering relaxation. Mindfulness meditations often produce relaxation in the meditator, however, this is not the intention when practicing mindfulness, it’s merely a by-product. And there’s no guarantee it will always occur; for example, if you’re sitting in meditation and difficult thoughts keep arising, you’re unlikely to find it relaxing. But if you’re seeking to relax, then on such occasions you’re likely to think something’s gone wrong, your favourite relaxation technique is no longer working… and if this keeps happening, you may even stop practicing. The fact is, there are hundreds of relaxation techniques to try – but mindfulness meditation is not one of them. When engaged in a mindfulness meditation our intention is to be present, and turn towards our experience in an open, curious and non-judgemental way – this can be difficult when we’re preoccupied with trying to relax, and thus to alter our experience, rather than turning towards it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with becoming relaxed when meditating, but when we seek to do so, we’re no longer practicing mindfulness, and instead we’ve turned it into yet another relaxation technique.

It’s also worth considering that relaxation techniques work best when we’re essentially safe, in fairly non-challenging situations, and not too distressed. Under conditions when we don’t feel safe, are deeply distressed and in a challenging situation, relaxation techniques may fail to work. Ironically, it’s actually the skills and psychological flexibility that we cultivate in mindfulness practice that are most likely to help us to cope at such times.

So, following on from this, let’s also consider those kinds of circumstances when we might unintentionally use our practice as a distraction technique to avoid the present moment, rather than turn towards it. Sometimes these situations can be quite hard to recognise, but let’s take the example of someone who really doesn’t like their daily commute by train, so they decide to use the time to meditate. And let’s say they discover they are able to meditate on the train, and begin to do this on a daily basis. On the one hand this seems like a great idea: This was ‘down’ time they weren’t going to be using to do anything else, so it really helps them to fit their practice into their day. But on the other hand, when we look a little closer, we can see they’re also using their practice to avoid their experience, to turn away from it, to not be present. This is really the opposite of a mindful approach, and instead the meditation has just become another control strategy. Perhaps the clearest way to spot this is to look at the motivation to practice at that particular time or location; is it to avoid being present?

To be clear, none of the above is meant to be interpreted as a set of rules, but simply as food for thought. Most often people move away from practicing mindfulness by slipping into intending to practice relaxation or distraction: There is nothing inherently wrong with avoiding or controlling our experience, and nothing wrong with using relaxation or distraction techniques, but they are quite different to mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves turning towards our experience in the present, with openness and curiosity. When practiced in this way mindfulness offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn how our minds work. To keep in touch with this, when practicing, it can be helpful to begin by connecting with our intention in the practice (being present, observing the breath, etc.), and also connecting with our motivation to practice, and doing this can help to expose those times that we’ve begun to move away from mindfulness and towards relaxation or distraction.

Present Moment Awareness

“Present moment awareness” is one aspect of secular mindfulness that seems to get a lot of attention, to the degree that, for some people, it appears to be the essential essence of secular mindfulness. Why is this?

Perhaps, because it can be readily confused with the familiar quality of ‘now’, which pervades western culture: A hedonistic, adrenaline-buzz filled, living-for-the-moment sense of ‘now’. This ‘now’ involves abandoning any knowledge or wisdom that may come from past experiences, and, simultaneously disregarding any concerns or commitment to the future, lest either impinge on our total enjoyment of the present moment.

However, the ‘now’ we encounter with mindfulness has fundamentally different qualities, to the degree that it could be argued that secular mindfulness risks becoming devalued through a disconnection with past and future, if the focus on the present is too great. Writing on the subject of mindfulness in psychotherapy, Meg Barker [1] makes the point that mindfulness can also be applied to memories or plans, and thus the significance of present moment awareness may be over-emphasised in secular mindfulness. Indeed it has been argued that the secular mindfulness focus on the present moment may be misplaced, (the Pali word sati conveying a meaning of memory or remembrance). In a critique of mindfulness interventions in capitalist societies, Purser [2] describes Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the pioneering mindfulness-based 8-session course, as having a fetishisation of the present moment.

I find these points most eloquently echoed in the words of Ken Holmes, director of Buddhist studies at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, [3]:

“Mindfulness could be taken very literally as the mind being full of, i.e. not forgetting, its purpose. In Buddhism, mindfulness is synonymous with remembering or, more precisely, not forgetting. The general outline is: being very aware of what is happening in the moment, one remembers wise council, because one cares deeply about the outcome.”

For me, this best captures the sense of ‘now’ in mindfulness; an awareness of the present moment that is not devoid of the wisdom of the past or a commitment to the future.

Worth remembering.

[1] Barker, M., (2013) Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications.

[2] Purser, R., (2015) ‘Confessions of a mind-wandering MBSR student: remembering social amnesia’, Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, 43:1, 6-14.

[3] Gilbert, P., Choden, (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland: New Harbinger Publication Inc. (p139).

Einstein's optical delusion

Listening to Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her 'stroke of insight' reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, which Richard Davidson used to close his session at the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue, "The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation":

'A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.'

This brief quotation seems to connect so well with the insights that Jill shares in her presentation: The concept of oneness, or connection, and how we are cut of from it by the 'optical delusion' of our consciousness. The sense that we can observe this restriction and strive to free ourselves from it. And not least, the need for compassion.

On that subject, Davidson's presentation, (Mind-Brain-Body Interaction and Meditation), covered some of his research into neural states in experienced and novice meditators. He noted, 'Many areas of the brain were more activated during compassion meditation compared to the neutral state… Another brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, has been implicated in self-relevant processing… This area of the brain associated with the self is deactivated when people are generating compassion, which is very much a selfless state.'

A transcription of the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue has been published in "The Mind's Own Physician" - ISBN: 978-1-57224-968-4

Despite the fact that this is quite a well-known quotation from Einstein, there seems to be some uncertainty as to the exact wording he used. It’s possible he may have re-written this a few times, leading to confusion today, but after some searching I found the following quote was included in a letter he wrote in 1950.

'A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited by time & space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts & feelings as something separated from the rest –
A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.
Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind'.

Albert Einstein, February 12, 1950.

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