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Swirl

I was delighted to receive my copy of Swirl recently, a booklet produced by Andy Walton and Gina Yu, on overcoming worry and over-thinking. Andy Walton is a community mental health  nurse based  in the north-east who trained in mindfulness through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and works with military veterans through  Combat Stress, a charity that helps military veterans with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Andy wanted to produce a guide to rumination that would be concise,  empowering, uncomplicated and pleasing to the eye, and also free of mental health stereotyping. The words “mental health ” don’t appear until the last page. The result is a stylish and beautifully produced 20 page booklet, designed by award-winning creatives, including Guardian and New York Times illustrator Nate Kitch, providing accessible and straightforward wisdom on rumination from mental health professionals. It is simple, accessible and contains clearly presented information in a series of beautifully illustrated chapters. As Andy described in an interview with The Guardian, ‘if you wake up in the middle of the night with your mind swirling with thoughts, my hope is that you can pick up Swirl and that it will soothe you, help you feel a bit more in control, bring you back to the here and now. It’s something you could read on the bus on your way to work that will give you the positive mindset that you are in control of your thoughts.’ You can read more of the article from this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2018/may/15/mental-health-self-help-guide-swirl-zine

The booklet gives simple clear guidance on being grounded in the present moment, recognising thought activity and for example, the benefit of labelling thoughts rather than being subjected to the labels, making choices that stem from responding rather than reacting, and the value of building blocks of taking small steps towards a narrative of self-care and resilience. It’s a wonderful distillation of practical advice on how to work with rumination and engage pro-actively with the present moment,  building new habits to support well-being. The combination of its simplicity and design has great impact, simple truths powerfully distilled in a creative format that inspire the possibility of working transformatively with the mind.

Swirl is available from www.swirlzine.com for £6. Since publication, the booklet has  been donated for free to every secondary school pupil in the borough affected by the Grenfell Fire.

The power of the present moment

When we begin to practice paying attention, we start to notice how strong the tugs and pulls on the mind are and how well developed our habit of distraction is. It can seem so engrained, so vivid, random and unruly. The process of building a new muscle of attention, a new mental habit of present moment awareness, may feel quite daunting and effortful to begin with, a bit like getting into a boat and launching off and finding a wobbly balance on the water. Launching into practice may seem reliant upon our wavering good intentions and willingness to find those moments of having strayed right off track, and allowing ourselves to begin again. However, the good intentions and willingness to find those new beginnings are a vital part of the process of building a stable mindfulness practice. Like an underlying buoyancy aid, we begin to discover that practice is always there, supporting us and holding us on the water.

Through practice itself, we learn to return repeatedly to the reality of the present moment, wherever and however this places us, and how far and for however long we have strayed. We do this hopefully with some good humour and compassion, yet all too often too we will also notice how hard we are on ourselves and how readily the inner critic has a field day with our rampant minds. This too is a vital part of the process. Nothing is excluded or unworthy of our compassionate attention, perhaps especially those harsh judgments and unkind ways in which we relate to ourselves and our lives. And what perhaps we don’t see at the beginning is how the endeavour of practice, those repeated moments of beginning again with ourselves just as we are, without judgement or conditions or agendas, is building compassionate awareness and the very basis of practice itself.

Each time we return our awareness to the present moment, we are creating the possibility of standing in an open and creative relationship to our experience. We are offering ourselves the opportunity of being more aware and responsive in our mental, emotional lives, rather than having the quality of life dictated to and overruled by our negative habitual tendencies. My meditation teacher, Yongey Mingyur Ronpoche, once described the process of practising moments of awareness as drops in a bucket filling slowly. We may not be aware of the accumulative effect of the process, but invisibly we are building a new way of perceiving and relating to ourselves and the world around us. We are oiling our tools of awareness for when we need to use them wisely and to good effect.

In our pressurised world, we don’t always have the luxury to step back from situations to work things through and think things out rationally and logically. We often say how we don’t even have time to think. And so our human and inbuilt tendency to react is easily hair-triggered by a backlog of automatic engrained perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, concepts, preferences and past memories, all loaded to the trip wire of the moment in which we hit the unwanted and downright inconvenient. We are hardwired to reactivity. The moment an experience is registered, our subconscious tendency to classify it as positive , negative or neutral kicks in to gear. If we like the experience, we are drawn towards it, if we don’t like it we will reject it or push it away, and if it is neutral our attention will skate over with disinterest.

The power of stopping even for a fraction of a second and knowing what we are experiencing and what is happening in the landscape of the present moment is a radical reversal of our reactive tendencies. The very moment we lean in to the here and now and see our thoughts and emotions for what they are, a little bit of distance is created between the raw material of our experience and our automatic tendency to over-inhabit and solidify every experience that comes our way. We underestimate the small wedge of freedom this creates. The power of the present moment offers a sliver of space in which the gap is widened between reaction and response, between solidity and flexibility, between hard and soft, between open and closed. Awareness is space itself.

Each time we catch ourselves and pause, each time we stop in the knowing of our experience for what it is, we are offering ourselves a space to breathe, a greater chance of dealing with our life experience more creatively, instead of being ruled by our more practiced negative feelings and thoughts. When we learn to catch a thought as a thought, and know an emotion for its taste and texture, a new muscle memory is being laid down. It only takes a moment for awareness to shine through to illuminate precisely the experience we are having. A moment of pausing is all that is needed.

We may not see directly how the bucket is filling with these drops of awareness and precisely how beneficial and infinitely valuable they are. Perhaps we take for granted how the very ordinariness of all we experience is the fertile ground from which this awareness has the capacity to develop and grow to bring us this degree of rich connection and insight. Yet the power of the present moment is reinforced each time awareness is allowed to manifest.

Each time we know what we are seeing, hearing and tasting, every time we are conscious of an emotion, a thought or a sensation, we have an opportunity for practice and we move towards the reality of a more richly inhabited world. Each time we repeatedly step over the threshold of unawareness, habitual distraction and reactivity, and enter through the gateway of direct experience, mindful awareness brings us through to a more fully lived sensory, mental and emotional landscape. It leads us to a more conscious life, a life of greater compassionate interaction with ourselves and others, and a life that is infused with greater discernment, care and ease.

This is why we practice pausing, and unleash the underestimated power of the present moment. Again and again, vital moments of clarity guide the boat forward with certainty and a growing confidence in the trustworthiness of our craft.

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.