Sunday, 15 June 2014


Mindfulness is getting more and more attention as a form of therapy. I've been interested in it for a while, and there's training available for my job so I've been thinking about doing it. It's all about learning to relax and not getting so caught up in your thoughts that you lose touch with the present. Or maybe it's about being in the present so much that you do lose touch with your thoughts from time to time. Anyway, I thought I might go and spend a day "doing" mindfulness to see what it was like. I'd come across a day of mindfulness organised by some Edinburgh buddhists - the Wild Geese Sangha, who particularly follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, who I think is a Vietnamese buddhist who runs a retreat called Plum Village in France.
Peter was a bit scathing, because it's not a race. "Why do you want to go and stare at a wall?" Quoth he. The truth is I didn't want to stare at a wall and that wasn't part of the day's curriculum.

Before you start, I'm not a Buddhist. I'm not an anything, but the Buddhists do mindfulness, and their day of mindfulness was inexpensive compared to other options. I was curious to see what it was like. I got up super-early so I could get a run in first and then headed up to the Gillis Centre.

Well the mind is a monkey and an uncharitable one at that, or at least mine was. I think I was a bit hungry by kick off and I was thinking that the lady who plumped herself down in front of me and obscured my view of the monk at the front had a rather fat back. I concentrated on that for some while and then my attention was increasingly pulled to the fact I was hideously uncomfortable, my back in particular. I'm not good at sitting cross-legged. I suspect hill running makes your hip-flexors strong but rather stiff. I decided to observe the sensations in my back. "Burning!" said Spock, "Captain, I think I feel...pain!". It was a long half hour. Next up was tea (and a biscuit, thank goodness) and then mindful walking.led by Brother Chan Phap Vu, who had flown all the way from New York State to be there. He was a nice tall man from Vermont. And he was funny. He told us about getting stuck in Chicago airport for 12 hours because there was a hurricane going on somewhere and all the flights were messed up, and him doing mindful walking on the travelator to pass the time productively.

We walked, like ducks, in a line behind him at less than 1 miles an hour. The brother was in a long brown robe, reminiscent of an HBT. I heard someone asking a nearby coach driver about us. "I don't know, I think it might be some kind of procession..." said the driver, as he stood beside his coach, having a fly puff. I could hear them thinking that they were glad they hadn't bought tickets for this. The walking was much better than the sitting for me. As luck would have it I quite often walk about without much going on in my head.

After this it was lunchtime, and I was hungry. I rather unbuddhistly thought I might see if I could get down to the refectory first and get first dibs on whatever was there. It was not to be though. Everybody, collectively, wanted to go for a pee, myself included. There was a big line so I went exploring and found some other toilets a bit further down the corridor. I went there, and then came out in a hurry, aware that I didn't know where the eating bit was and I had no-one to follow. As I came out the door to the toilet I tripped over something and was only stopped from crashing headlong down the stone stairway before me by slamming into a little wooden gate which had providentially been placed there. I was observed by the same lady whose back I had earlier been critiquing, so possibly it was karma. I may or may not have said "arse".

Anyway (I have to hurry this along). Lunch was to be eaten in silence for the first 20 minutes, which suited me absolutely fine and I was a little disappointed when the bell rang and we could all talk. I like just eating when I'm eating. Ask Peter. Thinking about it, I'm already quite Zen. Sort of crabby Zen.

For the first part of the afternoon session we went into small groups to discuss different topics. The topic of my group was true love. This was meant to be about mindful speech and mindful listening and I thought it could be interesting. Then the "people" element entered the dynamic. We had a monopoliser in our group. It would have been surprising, I guess, if we hadn't. I don't think I've ever been at a work training or day workshop where there wasn't one. They take the explicit agenda and work it around to talking about themselves. Lets have a metaphor. There we are on the football field and we've an agreed goal. We don't know how it's going to play out but we all have, quite literally, the same goal. Then along comes this chap...he appears to be playing the game...he finds a space and calls "pass the ball to me" (You can tell I watch a lot of football. It's so real.) ...the ball gets passed to him. It wouldn't have been passed by me. I already have my eye on him because at the start of the day I didn't like the way he walked into the room. He walked in late, walked on everybody else's mat and then held up proceedings further to insist that a rose, which he is waving around in his hand, gets put up on the little alter at the front. I think that the rose looks like it has just been plucked out of someone's garden....anyway, I digress. He now has the conversational ball and he is making off with it. First of all just going in a slightly odd direction and people are looking a bit puzzled. Then after a while he is frankly running off with the ball, and then having a game of keepy uppy with it, all to himself. He is now talking about how his wife never listens to a word he says and how this seems unfair. I feel such a wave of compassion for his poor wife. We are under buddhist rules and I don't think it's my place to tell him to shut up. This is standard people stuff and I've been getting it all week. It's not a holiday for me. Being with so many others is not doing it for me....I'm glad when it's over.

Then there's a question and answer session with Brother Vu. Again, I've come to a part of the day that doesn't sit well with me. I don't mind any of Brother Vu's answers to be fair. It's the questions. "Tell me how to be..." I guess that's religion for you. I don't really approve of people asking other people how to be.

It was a generous day organised by generous people though. It hasn't put me off mindfulness particularly, but I'd like my mindfulness secular, thanks. I've put up a clip of Jon Kabat-Zinn who teaches mindfulness in America. He wrote a book called Full Catastrophe Living which is really interesting, and started up a clinic for people with chronic pain who were not getting any relief any other way. He showed them how to use mindfulness and got some very good results.

Anyway, I didn't mean to say so much about all that. I'm not going to run off with the Buddhists although there are worse things I could do.

Today I went a run around the Water of Leith. It wasn't meant to rain, but it did. I carried an unnecessary rucksack with an unnecessary rain jacket in it (It was raining but I never put it on.), a fairly unnecessary camera (but I used it since I had it) and an unnecessary bottle of water which I never touched. 13 and a half miles a bit slow but I was weighed down by stuff and it was humid. The picture of the moon was from out the window at the end of last week. It was a lovely pink evening with a big atmospheric moon rising over Arthur's Seat. As you can see I have done a liberal amount of "camera-bagging" to jazz up pictures of a damp day in Scotland.

It will come as no surprise to you (if you've made it this far), that I should really be doing something about this darn dissertation. Yep. I'm running down the same corridor being chased by the same demons. Heaven help me. I better get to it.

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