Friday, 15 November 2013

I'm not the CEO – I’m just the feedback co-ordinator

I’ve sometimes likened mindfulness meditation to a CEO listening to feedback from frontline workers so that s/he is better able to run the company.  In that analogy, it is my conscious mind that is the CEO.  But the more I meditate (and remember what I have learned about neuroscience), the more I think that picture is inaccurate.

There is increasing evidence that our conscious minds are not our ultimate decision-maker, however much we like to flatter ourselves that we are in control.  According to research, by the time I formulate an intention to pick up a pen, the neural pathways required to carry out that action have already started firing.

So while I continue to believe that meditation is a way of getting feedback, it’s not so that my conscious mind can run things better.  It’s so my conscious mind has better information to pass onto the decision-making processes that lie beyond it.

This may well be wrong but it seems to make sense to me.   Anyone who has ever tried to meditate will know how little control our conscious minds have over our thoughts.  In fact, let’s face it: anyone whose brain has ceaselessly plagued them with “Wichita Lineman” for eight days in a row knows how little control we have over our thoughts.  But with close attention, we can teach ourselves that certain ways of thinking or acting cause suffering; once our being fully grasps the link between the behaviour and the suffering, it becomes easier to relinquish the behaviour.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Keeping the Five Precepts on retreat

Quite honestly, keeping most of the precepts was a piece of cake.

Sexual misconduct?  No problem: the people I was with were wonderful and no doubt if I weren't married I'd have been all over them like the rash that was all over me after the carrying-nettles-wearing-only-a-T-shirt incident, but somehow - somehow - I managed to control myself.

Don't take what is not offered?  This one was dead easy because everything in the Barn was offered to us.  However, I should like to point out that not only did I not take what was not offered, I shared food.  That's right, I put Brunch Bars and biscuits into the communal food supplies.  This had nothing to do with the fact that, deprived of coffee and e-cigarettes, I was munching through them like a woman on a mission to dissolve her teeth and pop her bra hooks.  OK, it totally was because of that, but still.  I shared.  I kept that precept good and proper.

Don't use mind-altering substances?  There were no such substances within a three-mile radius, so that wasn't much of a challenge.

False/harsh speech?  Admittedly, a couple of 'fucks' did escape my mouth, but they were delivered while empathising with a fellow retreatant about the hideousness of unrequited love, so I claim mitigating circumstances on that one.

The one that was really difficult?  Not taking life.  Man, I was a serial slaughterer on retreat!   Not being a gardener, I was unaware of the relentless killing it involves.  And this was an organic farm so it's not like I was using pesticide.  No, I was just merrily putting my spade through centipedes, then apologising profusely and hoping I hadn't deprived a family of its breadwinner.

I am not good at killing.  Never have been.  Seriously, I tear up if I tread on an ant.  The most traumatic incidents occurred while I was preparing freshly-picked salad for lunch. 

I found a tiny slug at the bottom of my colander.  Having successfully manoeuvred him* onto a leaf, I put him out of the window.  Alas!  He tumbled off his leaf, bounced on the windowsill and fell.  If I didn't outright kill him, I at least gave him a terrible headache.  Distraught, I returned to my colander, only to spot a money spider rummaging in the radicchio.  "Come here, foolish arachnid!" I cried, as I attempted to usher him onto a piece of lettuce.  Alas!  He ran into a water droplet and drowned.

In my defence, I did not intend to kill any of these beasties.  All the same, I inadvertently assassinated quite a lot of critters over the course of the week.

In conclusion, then, other than being a massive death machine, my behaviour on retreat was exemplary.

*Slugs are hermaphrodites, but referring to the slug as "it" feels disrespectful.  Why yes, I do have a tendency to anthropomorphise.  Does it show?

Monday, 4 November 2013

Retreat 4: How was it for you (baby)?

Quick version 

Wonderful.  There, you can go back to Facebook now.

Longer version

I was quite apprehensive beforehand.  I knew there would only be ten retreatants and figured that if I really got on someone's nerves (or they on mine), it could be a claustrophobic nightmare.  I was also aware that I know nothing about gardening and was concerned that I might find myself merrily 'weeding' prize orchids into a compost heap.  I made it clear on day one that any horticultural activities requiring knowledge or discernment should probably be delegated to someone else.  My message was heeded: I ended up pruning a hedge and cutting nettles.  (I can't believe no-one told me not to carry nettles wearing only a T-shirt.)

Anyway, I needn't have worried.  I'm told that most groups gel nicely, but one of the coordinators mentioned that our group had become especially close.  By the end, we were like family, and I don't mean in a you-really-know-how-to-push-my-buttons / I-never-asked-to-be-born kind of way.

I don't know about you, but I generally know when I've been running away from emotional baggage.  I was aware, going on retreat, that I had been avoiding feelings.  The fact that, having given up smoking in 2001, I had managed to become addicted to e-cigarettes, was a bit of a giveaway.  I decided to use the retreat to stop using e-cigarettes and to allow any underlying d├ębris to surface, should it be so inclined.

It was so inclined.

Apparently it's fairly common for people to get emotional on retreat.  Your usual distractions have been removed and you're spending an awful lot of time meditating (a.k.a. spending quality time with your mind), so unaddressed issues can easily arise.  Although I had a vague feeling that my unease was connected to those parts of my personality I refer to as my "inner Gollum" and my "inner Sergeant Major", I wasn't sure what to expect. What came up was a lot of pain connected to feeling that I have to be a certain way to be worthy of love. 

Really?  Years of therapy etc and I still have that crap going on?  REALLY?  I know - I said this at the end of the Atheist Prayer Experiment as well, when my bulimia decided to put in an unwanted appearance.

I don't know if those feelings will ever disappear completely.  They're a lot weaker than they were and, whereas they used to embody a loud voice with which I identified, they are now a poisonous whisper buried in the core of me.  They may still be guiding a few characters from behind the scenes, but they're no longer in the director's chair.

At times during the retreat, the feelings engulfed me, but they passed and I carried on with my daily routine, enjoying the company of my fellow retreatants and the beauty of the Devon countryside.  What I have found is that, in meditation, instead of being sucked into the hurricane of difficult emotions, I can - with patient practice - learn to sit in the eye of the storm and observe them. Or, to use another analogy, I can hold them lovingly and let them express themselves, like a parent holding their distressed child.  I find that getting this sort of distance from pain is healing: I can observe it more objectively, watch it arise and pass away, see its component parts and know that it is not as solid as it seems. 

The retreat was a nurturing environment, where I felt safe being vulnerable.  The meditation has also given me more insight into the way my mind works, which is always useful intelligence to have.

I've stayed off the e-cigarettes since coming home.

NEXT TIME: How well did I keep the Five Precepts?  (Spoiler so that Mrs McGingersnap doesn't fret: I didn't engage in sexual misconduct.  Not even with myself.  Sorry - that was probably TMI for the rest of you.)

Friday, 1 November 2013

Retreat 3: Philosophy and house rules

This one's going to be dry and boring, so I'll keep it short.


Essentially Buddhist.  Most meditation sessions were mindfulness-based, though there were two guided metta meditations and some teaching on concentration practices.  The visiting teachers discussed issues from a Buddhist perspective.

With that said, the Barn's library contained psychology texts and books from other contemplative traditions, as well as Dhamma teachings.  Plus, the guy who runs the place doesn't define himself as Buddhist.  I think I was the only retreatant who in any way identified as Buddhist, but I didn't sense that the others felt put off or alienated by the focus on this guy:

"Today I shall go for the cottage loaf hairstyle"

House rules

If you know anything about Buddhism, you'll know that there are a lot of lists in it, one of which is The Five Precepts.  We were asked to keep these while on retreat.  Here's the vow from the Barn's website:

"I undertake the training to refrain from..."
  • harming any living being
  • taking what is not offered
  • sexual and sensual misconduct
  • false speech (including idle gossip, harsh and divisive speech)
  • taking substances which disturb the balance of the mind (and may lead me into committing any of the above)."

How well did I do?  I'll tell you how well in a later post!

In practical terms, this meant a vegetarian diet, no alcohol and no coffee.  There was tea, though, and you were allowed to sneak a crafty fag behind the woodshed.