Friday, August 10, 2012

Freeing The Mind

Peace Is Every Step - Mixed Media on Canvas 24"x24"

Last Sunday, despite 30 degree weather, cloudless skies and beckoning beaches, 60 of us tucked ourselves into a room to learn how to "calm our restless minds" (the title of the day long retreat). And not one of us took the opportunity to slather on sun screen and bolt at the lunch break, a testament to our leader, Howie Cohn who delivers the dharma with an engaging mix of  informality, humour, humility, passion and wisdom.

Turns out the recipe for calming the restless mind lies in the "four foundations of mindfulness", one of those lists in the Buddha's cookbook. Our restless mind finds its birthplace in the fact that we spend a lot of our time either thinking about the future or the past. A lot of churning goes on (are we making butter up there?) as we imagine what might happen or worry about something that has already happened. As the Buddha suggested, a mind that rests in the present moment, neither resisting it, nor clinging to it, is free. In that moment when we are truly right here, with whatever is, the mind is calm. It is fully occupied in experiencing the moment, no space is available for anything else, whether you are tying your shoe or flying an plane.
Dreams of Lhasa Mixed Media on Canvas 12"x12"

And so we tested the Buddha's theory.  That's exactly what the Buddha wanted us to do, "to make it true for ourselves," not to believe it just because someone said it was so. We used the first foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of the body to help us become present. We followed the breath, in all it's tiny nuances, long and short, rough and smooth, the space at the end of the breath, it's coolness at the tip of the nose, the rising a falling of the chest. And we watched our minds wander to stories of this and that. We called it back, like a dog run off in a thunder storm, reminding ourselves in that moment, we were back in the present moment, something to congratulate ourselves for instead of grumbling about how we had been off somewhere. We noticed our feet on the floor, our seats on the chair. The body with it's sensations and aches and pains, it's flutterings and itches, was constantly calling us home. We honed our ability to listen to that call. Presence and awareness was being cultivated in each tiny garden of the heart. All our lives we have been cultivating weedy patch of mindless wandering, like wild morning glory.

Howie asked us to zoom in a bit  as we experienced the present moment, to see if we could determine it's feeling tone. Was it pleasant or unpleasant or simply neutral? All moments have one of these feelings associated with them. And if we could do that, could we see what happened in the next split second? If the sensation was unpleasant, did it flip into some form of aversion, of not wanting it, of worrying about it. A woman described this beautifully saying she felt a flutter in her leg, which at first seemed neutral, then even pleasant as she made the association of a butterfly but then the mind went, oh, no what if something's wrong.  And all this in a split second.  We were getting to see the subtle ruminations and movement of the mind, getting to know our personal playlist. We got to see the connection between our experience and the mind state that arose. And Howie asked us the question, "What  use is this information?"
tiny bowl, charcoal and acrylic 6"x6"

Turns out we can use it to interrupt our habitual or "mindless" response to our experience. I have a choice about whether I want to go down the rabbit hole of worry when I feel a flutter in my leg, but only if I am aware of that little chain of events. If it just "happens" without my awareness I am doomed to suffer as I follow the flight path of wild mind. If I can feel the flutter with awareness and follow the chain of events that transpires I have a choice.

And it wasn't that we learned to calm our restless minds on the spot, so that they would never be restless again. It was about learning the process, the same way you might learn a yoga posture that you can practice at home. The more you do it, the more the subtleties of the posture open up to you. The more you practice, the better your form becomes, the stronger your muscles become. And so it is with mindfulness. We are practicing, training the unruly, restless mind. Just as we get to know how our particular body responds to and works with physical exercise, so we get to know the peculiarities of this mind that we inhabit in this lifetime. We get to see we have choices and that we can choose to simply experience this moment and be released from the ruminations of the restless mind. Freedom lies in the next simple breath.


  1. I so want to adopt the Buddhist philosophy; I read, breathe, try to meditate, read more, then turn back to my reality: a mother of 3 adults...who will always be my children...with complicated lives and often difficult problems; a grandmother of 3 innocents growing up in a crazy and complex world; a wife of a man with deteriorating health problems from a car crash; a woman in my 60s with questions and fears about my future.

    Life out here in the real world is not quiet and reflective and all about breathing in the moment, however hard I try. It's messy and noisy and confusing; it's difficult and exhausting and sometimes frightening.

    I know, I know...just breathe.

    ~ Hazel

  2. this is life in the real world for sure. Howie Cohn said some interesting things at our retreat. Concentration practice, as in deep focus will not necessarily spill over into our lives but mindfulness, if we practice it, (paying attention to what is going on in this moment) will gradually give us more space, so that it does impact how we view our situation and how we respond, which is of course the point of it all. It is a life long project. Pema Chodron says we have been training wild mind for so long, we won't instantly become mindful. And I know you know this, we do what we can. And each time we return to the moment we are cultivating mindfulness and breaking our ties to mindlessness. And we do this with the kindness and tenderness we often reserve for pets and small children! Namaste

    1. Thank you for responding to my grumpy post; it's been a tough summer in many real life ways. I've often wondered why, when the present moment is difficult and painful, do I want to focus on it so intently? It's so much easier to daydream about a better time or a better place, past, future, or virtual. Wild mind sure says it all!

      But once again, tomorrow morning I will sit and breathe...what else can I do?


  3. A beautifully written post, Carole. The idea is so simple, isn't it?- but the doing of it is so hard. My mind seems more unruly than ever lately, probably because school is about to start. I like the art you've included here, especially 'Dreams of Lhasa'.

  4. Thanks, Sharmon. Yes, for sure there are things that fill our minds with more thoughts than usual! Enjoy your end of summer days. And I always think of September as the beginning of the new year in a way.

  5. Your new art work is wonderful, Carole! I love "Dreams of Lhasa"! That is such a point to keep coming back, when considering things, to "make it true for ourselves". To really get to our truth and be honest in our choices. So much answers to our unruly, wild self and mind can be found in one moment's stillness. :o) Happy Days ((HUGS))

  6. Thanks Tracy! Yes, happy summer days! Hope the sun is shining in Norway.