Setting an Intention for 2021 December 2020
Earlier this year, in the midst of the first UK COVID-19 lockdown, I began to host a regular hour-long Mindful Self Compassion online meditation session for people who had taken the Brighton & Hove 8-week Mindful Self Compassion course.
These meetings became quite important for some people – they said it was like an ‘oasis in the middle of the week’. However, the more that people felt it was important to them, the more pressure they began to place on themselves to have a ‘good’ meditation. If something interfered with this peaceful, calming space – like someone’s next door neighbour playing ‘Call of Duty 4’ very loudly on their PlayStation – it meant that what should be a nourishing and nurturing time could turn into something annoying, upsetting or even quite tortuous.
Whenever we sit down to meditate or do some sort of contemplative practice, we almost certainly have some idea, some preconception of what we are trying to achieve – what a ‘good’ outcome looks like. This is the same with any activity – sport, art, work, leisure. If I go to play golf, I might be thinking that I want to beat my golfing partner, or I might be hoping to beat my own personal best score, or I might be just enjoying the beauty of the countryside and not be too bothered about how well I’m playing; I’ll always have an idea of what a ‘good’ round looks like on the day. In the same way, if I throw a party, I have an idea of what a good party would be like. And I might also have a very clear idea of what a bad party is, or a bad round of golf.
When it comes to meditation, we tend to bring the same preconceptions, hopes and fears about what a good and bad session would be like. A good session would most likely consist of a serene mind, excellent attentional focus and wholesome thoughts and feelings at the end. A bad session would consist of lots of distraction, followed by bad thoughts and negative feelings.
To try to help to manage such expectations, I often think about what my own Buddhist teacher told me: “there is no such thing as bad meditation”. This points towards the importance of setting our intention. Being mindful is the intention to be present with our experience – whatever that might be. If we just have an intention to sit down and be present with ourselves and our experience, that’s really great. Even if we find we are terribly distracted, that’s just our experience and noticing this is all that’s required.
However, in my experience, when we begin to add in an intention to cultivate compassion for self and others, this begins to stray into the realms of self-improvement: I must be kinder to myself and others. It’s just a short hop from this idea to the belief that a self-compassion practice is something that needs to feel ‘good’: if we end up feeling stressed, bad-tempered and resentful towards our neighbours or ourselves, we might feel we have failed and that we are not very good at this sort of practice, and so we might as well give up.
The meditation teacher Bob Sharples calls this sort of attitude ‘the subtle aggression of self-improvement’, and says that the remedy is to consider meditation as an act of love. When we give someone our full attention, this is a loving act. Indeed, attention and kindness are all that’s really needed for humans – or any life form – to flourish.
This reminds me of Pema Chödrön’s teaching on ‘unconditional friendship for yourself’ – her translation of the Sanskrit word maitri. She talks about maitri as being the “seed of happiness, or wellbeing, or glad to be alive”. It’s possible to see the essence of this sort of friendship as kind attention.
And if I can hold my lack of attention and kindness in a gentle and friendly way, if I can set an intention to never give up on myself, to never turn away, to keep opening my heart, even when I don’t feel like it, then the outcome of my practice or whatever I’m doing – whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – becomes less of a burden to me; the judgemental attitude at the heart of the self-improvement project is robbed of its power. This shows how important it is to set an intention, and to continually refine this.
After a few weeks of practising together, several people in our Brighton & Hove Mindful Self Compassion ‘lockdown group’ began to talk about the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressure they were feeling to have a ‘good’ experience in this precious, once-a-week space. So, as a group we decided to try to remedy this by developing some phrases to help set our intention at the beginning of the guided meditation. Several people shared their ideas via email and we eventually crafted two short phrases which we felt captured the intention we wanted to foster at the beginning of our practice.
These are our phrases: “May we be present with ourselves just as we are. May we meet ourselves with kindness”.
The first phrase promotes mindfulness, rather than getting swept away by our reactions to our experiences and getting caught in familiar storylines. The second phrase encourages us to soften when we meet our edge – when we might usually begin to be irritated, angry and harsh towards ourselves. We thought that using the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ – even though we might be practising on our own – was a way of extending the wish for kindness and attention to everyone, everywhere. We found that repeating the phrases three times at the beginning of practice, as we settle our bodies and minds was most helpful: we might be a bit distracted when we say it the first time, less so the second and by the time we’ve said it three times, the meaning begins to touch us, to really land in our hearts and minds.
So, as we sit down to practice, whether someone is playing “Call of Duty 4” next door, or we’re totally preoccupied with an argument we had yesterday, or our mind is just all over the place – these phrases can help to remind us that’s just how things are. And how we react is also just how we are. And we can try to soften towards that – to be friendly towards ourselves and our experience, no matter what.
These phrases could also serve as an intention for our day, our week, our year: as the great 20th century yogi Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said: “Our daily practice is to meet our edge, and soften”. We don’t need to change, or be a ‘better person’ in order to have the intention to be present and kind towards ourselves.
The great irony here is that change for the better really only comes with radical acceptance of ourselves. As the great psychotherapist Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that it’s only when I accept myself just as I am, then I change”. Alan Watts, the English mystic said something similar: “The reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t”.
At this time of the year when we might be setting our intentions for the year ahead – to be slimmer, fitter, healthier, kinder or richer – maybe we could set an intention to be a good friend to ourselves. I have found that repeating these phrases regularly, whether I’m about to do a practice or not, has helped me to refine my own intention to develop maitri - unconditional friendship with myself. And as we leave behind a tumultuous and painful 2020 and look forward to the coming year – perhaps with some trepidation as to what’s ahead – being a good friend to ourselves has never felt so essential.
May we be present with ourselves just as we are. May we meet ourselves with kindness.
Happy New Year!
You Do Not Have to Be Good January 2019
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver
I’ve always found the first line of this poem to be wonderfully tender and forgiving. When I read it out on the Mindful Self Compassion course (usually at the end of session 6 – ‘Meeting Difficult Emotions’) I find myself feeling so very grateful for these words written by Mary Oliver. When I heard yesterday that she has died it felt to me as though the world was a tiny bit darker without the presence of this warm and wonderful poet. Her humanity, love and profound enthusiasm and gratitude for life shine through her poetry. And I felt so tender and grateful to her that I needed to say something about what her poetry has done for me over the past few years.
I never really enjoyed poetry very much until I started practising Mindful Self Compassion a few years ago. I had always thought that I was supposed to decode some specific meaning that the poet was trying to convey. Then someone told me that this was not quite right: that I was free to decide the meaning of poems myself. I don’t know whether this is correct, but this advice began to free me up and I started to enjoy bits of poetry.
When I discovered Mary Oliver while on MSC retreats, I was immediately pierced by her keen, uncompromising eye for inner experience – pain, despair, joy, wonder. The three poems that I regularly use on MSC courses – “The Summer Day’, ‘The Journey’ and ‘Wild Geese’ – have become vehicles for contemplation – kind of guided meditations, straight to the heart of the matter.
‘Wild Geese’ always has an impact on me. It really seems to me that because of Mary Oliver’s profound love and respect for all life that she speaks with great authority when she says, ‘You do not have to be good’. It is true. It is truth. I feel a weight lifting from my shoulders and my heart opening. I see more clearly, and I feel more generous – to others, to the world, to myself.
When she tells me that I don’t have to walk through the desert on my knees for a hundred miles repenting, I feel her kindness, humour and compassion for my confusion and my self-judgment. And then she tells me how to live: by letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves. This is an invitation to trust that I already have what the great Yogi Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘basic goodness’. It is possible to open to this and allow myself to love.
So today I am sad at the departure of a kind-hearted soul, who warmed humanity with her fierce love, but I am still – and always – grateful for her words, which tend and soothe my heart. Thanks Mary.
‘Leaving home’: personal change and transformation September 2017
Although 1st January is the day of year most often associated with ideas of change and personal transformation, much of our early experience of new beginnings comes from the rhythm of the academic year. Our first day at school, our first day at ‘big’ school and our first day at college or University all take place in the autumn. For me, the end of the summer holidays has always felt like the start of something and I very often find myself returning home or to work with a sense of renewed purpose.
In my roles of Specialist Mental Health Mentor and Buddhist Chaplain at the University of Sussex, this time of the year is about the Freshers’ Fayre and the huge influx of new students, many of whom are leaving home for the first time. There is always an atmosphere of excitement and discovery at the beginning of the academic year, but sometimes anxiety and confusion too: leaving home can be difficult. Finding yourself in new surroundings and amongst new people can bring feelings of disorientation and vulnerability. Being brought into contact with new ideas and ways of thinking can seriously challenge our worldview.
I remember when I attended university for the first time to study social work at the age of 30 I felt as though the foundations of who I thought I was were so seriously shaken that, in certain instances, they actually crumbled away. I found myself changing long-held views and being able to see my life and my world from a different perspective.
Whilst this was a good thing, it was also disturbing and distressing at times. And although I hadn’t left home to study, I still felt as though I had left home in a metaphorical sense – leaving the known boundaries of my intellectual, emotional and psychological abode and venturing into new territory.
In the mind-training tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, ‘leaving home’ is used in this metaphorical way to emphasise the urgency and the seriousness of the path of personal transformation, as in this verse from ‘The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva’ by Gyelse Togme:
In one’s native land waves of attachment to friends and kin surge,
Hatred for enemies rages like fire,
The darkness of stupidity prevails, oblivious to right and wrong.
To abandon his/her native land is the practice of a Bodhisattva
Here, home or 'native land' is the place of stagnation where we cling in an addictive way to certain things - relationships, possessions etc. - and feel strong hatred towards our 'enemies' - those people who we think are threatening our way of life, our peace of mind. We can become so stuck in these patterns that we lose perspective on what is truly beneficial for ourselves and others. We need to escape this environment - to leave home, abandon our 'native land' - in order to see what is actually helpful for ourselves and others.
Entering into personal therapy, whilst not as serious and life-altering as a spiritual path, can also feel like leaving home. As we progress along the therapeutic path, our usual way of looking at things may change significantly and we may begin to feel differently about long-established relationships – how we relate to ourselves as well as others. We are journeying into new territory and, whilst we may return home after our journey, we will bring with us new ideas, new ways of relating – new arrangements of our emotional and psychological ‘furniture’. Our home will be renewed: it will never be the same again.
Letting go of the old world and encountering the new can be difficult. It can bring up many strong emotions: sadness and anger, but also tenderness and joy. In fact, if the process is not difficult then you probably haven’t really stepped outside your house and begun the scary and bumpy, yet fascinating and rewarding journey away from home.
Giving Up, Giving In: Renunciation and the paradox of personal change January 2017
“God, make me chaste – but not yet!” St. Augustine’s famous supplication captures beautifully the internal battle that almost always accompanies efforts at personal transformation – the perfectionist push towards self-improvement and the warm, familiar pull of bad habits.
At this time of the year, it feels like we are bombarded by exhortations to renounce our bad habits and improve ourselves. New Year, New You: dry January, Veganuary, body detox, social media detox, gym memberships, low carb diets, sugar-free, fat-free, de-clutter, de-stress – simplify your life! You can be more productive, more creative, thinner, healthier, happier, etc., etc. …
But while we might be able to make some cosmetic changes, the aspects of our lives that we would dearly like to change – worry, stress, addictions, relationship difficulties, low self-esteem – often remain stubbornly resistant to our efforts at self-improvement. These are more deep-rooted problems that often seem to stem from a feeling that there is something wrong with us, or something missing.
This feeling often drives the habits of thought, feeling and behaviour which we experience as problematic, such as over-eating, smoking, drinking, feeling bad about ourselves or being critical and blaming of others. These are our attempts to either fix or avoid the feeling of wrongness. And these can end up being problems in themselves, which we then try to fix or avoid. If we carry on like this we can become like the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly, creating more problems through our attempts to solve the original feeling of something being wrong.
But when we are faced with these sorts of problems it often appears that there are only two options available to us: either renunciation or addiction. Giving up or giving in. Like St. Augustine, we generally feel that we have a stark choice between self-improvement or self-indulgence.
Renunciation is a major component of most serious spiritual paths, which may be why spiritual practice is not so popular in the so-called developed world, where we are defined by consumption rather than by ascetism. Although I would consider myself to be a fairly serious spiritual practitioner, I’ve always had a problem with renunciation and for much of my 20s and 30s I oscillated between being an ascetic ‘saint’ and a decadent ‘sinner’.
I found it extremely difficult to renounce habits and patterns of behaviour that I found comforting, satisfying or pleasurable – even when I knew that they were, in fact, quite harmful. Fortunately, through my efforts to understand this conundrum I had an experience which fundamentally changed my view of what renunciation is.
My story begins in the Hannya Temple, in Chalk Farm, London in the late 1980s when I was a student of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, a Japanese Zen Master. As I described in my last blog, I used to attend weekend and 7-day retreats at the temple and struggled greatly with the sitting practice.
We would rise at 5am and sit Zazen all day, with breaks for meals. I had been drawn to Zen Buddhism by rather romantic ideas of enlightenment and wasn’t prepared for the awful physical pain of sitting still for long periods of time. I tried everything to get rid of the pain – changing my sitting posture, changing my cushions, taking pain killers, using analgesic creams. Nothing worked. Although I survived the first two 7-day sesshins, my fear of the pain of sitting grew and grew.
About halfway through my third retreat I came to a point where I was standing by my place in the zendo, waiting for the next sitting period to begin, hating my cushions, hating myself. I felt desperate: I couldn’t leave, but I was finding the prospect of sitting down again impossible to countenance. At that moment, what seemed to be a perverse thought struck me: “surrender, let all the pain in”. As I sat down again I mentally shouted at my pain: “Go on then – do it! Give me everything you’ve got!” As I invited the pain in something strange happened: the pain was dramatically reduced! This felt astonishing and blissful at the same time.
The rest of the retreat was wonderful and although I was still in some pain, it no longer ruled me; my sitting was smooth and stable.
At the next retreat, I thought “I’ve cracked this. All I need to do is accept the pain and it’ll go away!” But, of course, this was not the case: trying to accept the pain in order to make it go away didn’t work because that was just another method of trying to fix or avoid the pain. I had to genuinely invite it in, with no agenda whatsoever.
For a few years, I categorised this experience as being solely to do with adjusting to the physical pain of sitting until one day when I had the great good fortune of a private interview with my Tibetan Buddhist teacher. He was in Brighton for a brief stay and I was to meet him on the pier.
As very often happens, when I met him I couldn’t think of anything to say and for some reason ended up telling him the above story. When I had finished, he smiled broadly and exclaimed “Renunciation!” and then abruptly turned on his heel and strode off towards the end of the pier, with me trotting along behind him, trying (as far as I can remember) to continue our conversation. However, it was clear that he considered the interview at an end.
At first, I couldn’t really understand his point, but, over the years, I’ve come to realise that what he meant by renunciation was very different from how I had understood it. I had always thought of renunciation as rejection – getting rid of something that I was attached to, but wasn’t good for me. He saw renunciation as fundamentally changing stuck patterns of relating to something. When you do this, the thing itself changes. I remember Kyudo Roshi saying “Pain isn’t bad. Pain is just pain!” I had always related to my pain as bad: something to fix or to avoid. When I had exhausted every option in either of these two methods I was left with only one choice: to meet it fully, to welcome it in. When I did this my experience of the pain – of myself – was radically altered.
The great psychotherapist Carl Rogers famously said “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change”. And this is what is most difficult: when we have something about ourselves that we deeply dislike and want to change, accepting ourselves as we are seems impossible. How can I accept myself if I want to change? In my experience the only way to do this is through full, experiential engagement with what we think is wrong.
Acceptance doesn’t make any sense as an abstract theory or as a technique. The only way is to approach the thing we don’t like – the feeling of ‘something wrong’, the feeling of being unlovable or unworthy – and experience it fully. Rather than fight it or run from it, we could try to approach it and get to know it. Change our relationship to it. True renunciation is about full engagement rather than rejection and although trying to do this is challenging, the results can be truly transformational.
In the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Happy New Year!
Embrace your inner twit October 2016
At the end of a recent retreat, just when I really should have been full of loving kindness towards all humanity, I felt a moment of quite ordinary irritation towards someone who I thought was acting like a twit. Added to this irritation was a feeling of disappointment, as the person in question was someone of whom I had quite high expectations: he really shouldn’t have made himself look like an idiot. “I think he’s a bit of a twit” I said to the small group of fellow retreatants who were sitting with me, waiting for a taxi to take us to the station. At that moment I felt the harshness of my judgement and then I began to feel guilty at having been so critical of someone who I didn’t really know.
At this point one of our group, called Rosie (who I also hardly knew) came to my rescue: “Ah!” she said, smiling “Embrace your inner twit!” I immediately knew what she meant: that my feelings of irritation and disappointment weren’t really about the ‘external’ twit – the person who I thought had annoyed and disappointed me – but came from a fear of being a bit of a twit myself. My inner twit.
As I journeyed back across the country towards my home on the South coast, I thought about this more and more and began to feel a huge gratitude to Rosie for this teaching.
I was reminded of something that happened to me in the late 1980s when I first became involved in meditation. In those days I used to go to a small Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple in London called the Hannya temple (Hannya means ‘wisdom’) for sesshin – intensive meditation retreats lasting 7 days. At my second sesshin we were very fortunate in being guided by an authentic Zen Master called Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, who came from his Zendo in New York to lead the retreat. As I was quite new to Zen practice I struggled greatly with the physical pain of sitting still for long periods of time. However, I was very keen to show the Roshi what a good student I was, so I sat silently and stoically through the agony.
After a couple of days one of my fellow retreatants began to really get on my nerves. He was from an Israeli Zen group in Tel Aviv and seemed to be completely ignorant of the various formal processes and ways of being that characterised a Zen retreat at our zendo in London. He seemed nervous and unsure of himself. At first I thought he was a bit of a twit, but as the retreat progressed my thoughts became darker and my judgements harsher. He really bugged me.
I was still a smoker at that time and used to go out of the house for a crafty fag after the last sitting period before bedtime. On the evening of the fourth day I put the door on the latch, went outside and found the nearest bench and lit up. The Israeli chap passed by me, having taken an evening stroll. He went into the house and dropped the latch on the door, locking me out! I had to knock quite loudly to get him to let me back in and I felt mightily embarrassed at making such a noise in the silence of the temple. I was fuming as my tormentor let me in and, oozing contempt, very patronisingly showed him how to shut the door without dropping the latch.
The next morning, just after breakfast as we went about our morning chores, I caught sight of this chap as he struggled in an ungainly fashion with the vacuum cleaner. I guess four days of meditation had cleared my mind to some degree, because I was suddenly pierced by a sharp feeling of compassion and sorrow on seeing his struggle. At that moment I had a minor flash of insight: I didn’t hate him – I hated myself! I hated that part of me that was struggling – the part that I was trying to hide and that felt vulnerable, gauche and wrong. Stunned and tearful, I stumbled outside to the nearest bench and wept and wept for about half an hour. At first I felt overwhelmed by sadness – for me, for him, for every vulnerable ‘twit’. Eventually this sadness mellowed into a feeling of open-hearted tenderness towards my own and others’ vulnerability.
Although I have treasured this experience ever since then, it still gets lost in the hurly-burly of my life. So, I was grateful to Rosie for reminding me that whenever I feel a dislike for anyone – even someone like Donald Trump – it’s almost certainly connected to something that I dislike in myself. As the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says “[These people] show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck”. The only real twit is the inner twit. And making friends with him – even embracing him – is the only way to go.