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Mindfulness, distraction and the Christmas rush

At the last monthly practice support meeting held in Newcastle at the County Hotel, we explored how the lead up to Christmas can be a valuable and rich basis for our practice to support us amidst the increased pressures we may experience at this time of year.

Where I live, which is in quite a remote area of the Northumberland National Park, we have already had snow lying before Christmas, and have been snowed in at the bottom of our track. It means we leave the car at the top of the track, and ferry everything we need up and down to the house. Sometimes in the absolute dark, we need a torch to cross the cattle grids and it can feel like something of an expedition, hearing only the crunch of the snow on the verges as we pick our way carefully down hill, sometimes catching sheeps’ eyes gleaming in the dark as we pass, and the glimpse of a thin moon hanging above the birch trees. Everything remains frozen at the moment – the fields are coated in thick white frost, the burn in the woods is a wonderland of frozen  pools and hanging icicles, and the whole landscape is penetrated by a cold charge of deep stillness. It is midwinter and nature is moving towards its greatest point of contraction as we head towards the solstice.

Despite this natural slowing down in the natural world,  and the moving towards a time  of focussed gathering, giving and celebration, it is a time of year when we can experience the speediness and commercial drive of society,  greater pressures on our time and energies, and the stress of expectations from ourselves and others to conform to perceived norms of socialising  that we may not feel wholly comfortable with.  It may also be a time of increased loneliness and difficulty, depending on our individual circumstances.  As we hurtle towards the darkest point of the year, we also seem to hurtle forwards into a brightly glittering and  artificially illuminated world. How then, do we balance these internal and external factors, and keep close to the core of our being and what we most value?

Although in times of increased business and pressure, the “no time” mind set is easily activated, mindful awareness itself is always within us and brings the possibility of countless moments of leaning in to just whatever situation we are in. Here right in the heart of the Christmas rush is the gift of practice itself. At the core of our being the opening is already there. The very nature of the season in all its manifestations serves as a  reminder of how valuable it is to start just where we are in the present moment. Instead of being pulled out of connection by the glitter of  external distractions, we can compassionately find the shape of whatever moment we are in, and let this be an opportunity to soften and open to this very place.

In our meeting we reflected together how practice, very simply, allows a perspective and grounded-ness  that shines a way helpfully forward, moment by moment. As we feel our way in making countless choices and decisions, it becomes possible to  find the ground in just the next moment, and trust the sufficiency of our own awareness and resources, one step at a time. And so we find our way home, in repeated moments,  rather like  discovering  the sufficiency of the natural  light from the moon, creeping down a snowy track in the dark of a winter’s night, and finding the path that is already there. In the midst of the glitter and the chaos, we can remember to shift gears in to a moment of awareness and grounded presence and the kindness of possibility that shines from this. Instead of feeling far away from the gates of our practice, we discover it right there under our feet. Even the process of taking a simple breath reminds us of what is most significant and meaningful in its bare simplicity.

Monthly mindfulness practice support meetings are held at The County Hotel, Neville Street, Newcastle upon Tyne on a Thursday evening, from 6.30-8pm. They are open to anyone who has completed an 8 week MBSR/MBCT course. Please see the Course Dates listing for future meeting dates.

 

Generosity

The 6 week Attitudinal Foundations of Mindfulness course which I have been running in central Newcastle upon Tyne has recently concluded. It has been a rich journey of sharing and reflection together as a group.  The course  has offered a more expanded “vocabulary” for exploring how practice can be applied in the fabric of day to day life, through greater familiarity with  the ways in which these qualities show up  time and time again in our experience of practice. This has brought new insights, and has opened the door to new possibilities for responding to what we meet in the flow of life, and through recognising the places where we habitually struggle.

The attitudinal factors of mindfulness have been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the pillars of mindfulness practice” (Full Catastrophe Living, Piatkus, 2004. )These fundamental qualities include: beginner’s mind, non-judgement, patience, trust, non- striving, acceptance and letting go. Together they constitute interconnected qualities of heart and mind which bring an essential attitudinal approach to how we relate to experience through practice, and which are naturally developed through the course of pracice itself. Recently Jon Kabat-Zinn  has included generosity and gratitude as additional qualities which are also essential to practice.

As a spontaneous expression of generosity, on the final evening of the course,  a participant  who runs a speciality bakery, brought along the day’s surplus of loaves, cakes, mince pies and Christmas biscuits which were bought by members of the group, and all donations made given to the charity Shelter, and also the food distributed that evening to homeless people on the streets in the vicinity of Neville Street and Central Station.

At Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham there has also been a recent collection made by the school Human Rights Group of second hand waterproof jackets, mens shoes, hats, scarves, gloves and toiletries for donation to  the Newcastle  West End Refugee Service (www.wers.org.uk) which is an established charity supporting assylum seekers and refugees in Newcastle upon Tyne. And right out in Northumberland National Park, the community of Tarset is running a donation “hub” at the local Holly Bush Inn for donations of children’s Christmas gifts and seasonal food treats that can be added to much needed food parcels at this time of year at The Newcastle West End Foodbank (www.newcastlewestend.foodbank.org.uk). This offers emergency support to local people in crisis as part of  a nationwide network of foodbanks, supported by the Trussell Trust working to combat hunger and poverty across the UK. These individual and community gestures make a direct difference in significant ways at a time of year when human need is at its greatest and needs to be remembered, and which we can all find ways of contributing to.