Posts by Padraig O’Morain

Good day? Bad day? It’s OK

“By paying attention calmly, in all situations, we begin to see clearly the truth of life experience. We realise that pain and joy are both inevitable and that they are also both temporary.”
~ Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

After I sent this quote out to readers of my Daily Bell the other morning, I read it again, slowly, and stopped in my tracks. That second sentence, I realised, is revolutionary. That pain and joy are inevitable and temporary is an old idea from Buddhist psychology – but sometimes an old idea comes to life when you read how someone else says it.

Why am I calling this statement revolutionary? First, I want to translate “pain” and “joy” into “dissatisfaction” and “satisfaction” because those words work better for me. As I considered Sylvia Boorstein’s statement, I realised I often have a little thread of anxiety in my awareness about whether today’s events will be satisfying or dissatisfying. That little thread of anxiety can lead me by the nose. It can, paradoxically, make the day less satisfying as I worry about whether the day will, in fact, be satisfying.

But if I accept that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are both inevitable in the day and, moreover, that they are temporary, then I can let go of that particular thread of anxiety. That’s a welcome benefit.

Adopting and remembering her statement might also bring about subtle changes in what I do. For instance, I need to send somebody a bill for some work I did, and getting paid will be satisfying. But I also have to hunt down and make sense of lots of pesky little receipts to back up the bill and that (to me) is a dissatisfying way to spend time. I’ve been putting off sending the bill because, I suspect, of the dissatisfying part. But once I accept that both dissatisfaction and satisfaction are part of the deal, I am more likely to quit procrastinating and get on with what I need to do.

I can practice this in really small ways. Waiting for a one-page document to be printed, I noticed I was anxiously staring at the printer, wondering if it would come out the right way or the wrong way or not at all. I reminded myself that whatever way it came out, I would fix it: my anxiety was irrelevant, really. Then it came out the wrong way and as I watched the page coming out I spotted dissatisfaction but reminded myself that this was temporary. When I sent it through again, everything worked fine – I felt satisfaction and reminded myself that this was temporary too. For that reason, I also reminded myself to appreciate that little feeling of satisfaction while it lasted.

However, the key point for me is to remember that it’s no big deal — in fact, no deal at all — that I will experience both satisfaction and dissatisfaction today and that both are temporary anyway.

That’s liberation. And if I learn to appreciate the satisfaction, the joy, while it is there, I can improve my quality of life greatly without changing a single material thing in my world. That, to me, is a revolution in how I relate to my everyday life.

The next thing I need to do is to find a way to remember the teaching – expressed so well by Sylvia Boorstein – during my day. There’s a little coloured wheel that spins around on my computer when it’s taking a long time to do something – that will be my reminder. If you have a PC you could use that revolving egg timer that makes you grind your teeth every now and then. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with computers – just pick something that happens often in your day and perhaps that annoys you a little.

And remember to remember that it’s all inevitable and it’s all temporary.

Read More

My happiness does not depend on this: old teaching, new words

“My happiness does not depend on this.” The thought crossed my mind as I sat one day in a traffic jam under a grey sky, on my way to bring a computer for repair. What I did not realise at the time was that my mind had taken the old Buddhist idea of non-attachment and non-clinging and presented it to me in language I understood.

I did realise, though, that this thought could be very rewarding indeed in my daily life. I had been worrying about the response I would get from the repair people when I brought my computer back because their previous repair had caused the new problem – but once I realised that whatever their response, my happiness level a week later would probably be the same as it was today, the tension evaporated. I brought the computer back anyway and they fixed it.

After that I began to play with the concept. Now I remind myself every day that at least 95% of the time “my happiness does not depend on this” whatever “this” might happen to be. A stolen iPhone, snow in April, a new tax, a series of challenges to be met over the next week (and, of course, the week after and the week and the week after) – all demand attention and effort; some will bring satisfaction and some frustration but whatever happens my happiness does not depend on the outcome. Knowing this seems to free me up to get on with doing what needs to be done, accepting that it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get precisely what I want.

I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.

It was only after using my “new” concept for a while that I came to realise that this phrase was my mind’s translation of so much I had read about non-clinging, non-attachment, non-grasping and so on.

This has been of help not only to me but also to my mindfulness students to whom I like to emphasise that mindfulness is not simply a set of techniques but that the practice supports a philosophy of living, an attitudinal approach to the world and to ourselves in the world.

But surely my happiness depends on something? Of course. One important aspect of the attitude that “my happiness does not depend on this” is that it allows recognition of those things on which my happiness does, indeed, depend – usually close relationships. Would a hard-core Buddhist argue that my happiness should not depend even on close relationships? Perhaps, but then I am not a hard-core Buddhist – I’m a person who finds Buddhist philosophy valuable in helping me to approach my life in the world: so I am quite willing to have those relatively few things on which my happiness does depend getting their full place at centre stage while life’s smaller desires and inconveniences are sent to the wings.

When I wrote in my Irish Times column about the idea that “my happiness does not depend on this” I got one of the best responses ever to a column in many years. Readers all the way from full-time mums to company directors emailed to say what a difference this idea had made to them.

What fascinates me about this is that these readers were encountering an old Buddhist idea and found it immediately valuable. They took to it, as we say in Ireland, “like ducks to water.” And I am tickled by the fact that a 2,600 year old or so precept can come like a revelation in an era when we have had decades of being bombarded with advice on psychology and on how to live our lives.

Padraig O’Morain is the author of Light Mind – Mindfulness in Daily Living and teaches mindfulness in ireland. His website is www.padraigomorain.com

Read More

Aging as a Spiritual Practice, by Lewis Richmond

Here is a mindfulness practice from Lewis Richmond’s book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: Think of your life and its major events as a horizontal line. Your past stretches to the left of wherever you are on that line; your future stretches to the right. The events that stretch into the past are clear and unchangeable; the future is blurred: you don’t really know what events will eventually occupy that line or how long the line will eventually be. Think of this as horizontal time.

Title: Aging as a Spiritual Practice
Author: Lewis Richmond
Publisher: Gotham Books
ISBN: 978-159-24069-0-6
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

Now let’s move from horizontal time to vertical time. As you breathe in, imagine your breath moves up in a column from your cushion or chair. Breathing out, imagine the breath sinking down into the same place. “This vertical movement doesn’t go anywhere in space,” writes Richmond. “It doesn’t move from a certain past to an uncertain future. It just rests continually in the same spot.”

His book is full of interesting practices and ideas like this one.

When I read the title of the book, with its sub-title “A contemplative guide to growing older and wiser” I feared the worst. Would this book be drenched in denial and in piousness?

No piousness, I am glad to say, and no denial of reality. Lewis Richmond writes with honesty, clarity and humanity and his book contains much to interest readers of all ages. Actually he sounds like a guy you could sit back and have a beer with though as he’s a Zen Buddhist priest I assume he’ll be having the green tea.

He notes that we age one breath at a time. “When you observe your breath, you are not just passing through time; time is also passing through you.” No denial there but his concept of ageing one breath at a time adds a new dimension to mindfulness of breathing and to acceptance of what comes to us.

He is full of interesting perspectives like this. Consider non-judgemental attention. “… most people in the second half of life are paying close attention to the body in term of stamina, vigor, skin care, diet, weight loss, and attractiveness. But how many of us pay attention to our bodies without judgement? How many of us actually experience our bodies just as they are?”

That’s a fascinating question to bring to our mindfulness practice – and not just for those in the second half of life.

I was particularly taken by his “pebbles of life” practice. This comes from a fellow Zen priest who keeps a bowl of pebbles on a shelf beside a statute of Buddha. Each pebble represents a week of the rest (as he estimates it) of his life. Every Monday morning he removes a pebble from the bowl and returns it to the driveway he took it from.

This strikes me as an excellent way to cultivate an appreciation of the passing weeks but of course it involves turning towards the passing of time with death at the end of the journey. When I described this practice to a mindfulness class, all agreed it sounded like a very good idea. Then they began to change it around: how about using the practice to mark the passing of the year with a pebble for every month? Or how about putting a pebble in the bowl for every good experience we have? I was fascinated to see how quickly the need to escape from the contemplation of the ultimate ending of life asserted itself – and I have to admit that I haven’t yet gathered up the thousand pebbles I would allow myself for my own bowl.

Throughout his book Lewis Richmond tells stories of his own health and ageing experiences, of the experiences of others and explains aspects of Buddhism with admirable and enviable clarity.

In our era in the West, ageing has been described as a financial time bomb waiting to explode. People who grew up as the culture began to worship youth, now find themselves growing old. Those of us who are in the second half (or fourth quarter) of life must find a way to navigate our way through time bombs, the demands of the culture and our own health issues.

Anyone who wants to navigate with clarity,humour and mindfulness will enjoy this book.

His previous books are Work as a Spiritual Practice, Healing Lazarus, and A Whole Life’s Work.

Read More

“Living Well With Pain and Illness,” by Vidyamala Burch

living well with pain and illness“You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”

That thought transformed Vidyamala Burch’s relationship with her pain. A catastrophic car accident had left her with permanent damage and permanent pain – and that was on top of an incident during life-saving practice that had already damaged a vertebra.

Following one procedure she was required to sit upright for twenty four hours. During the ordeal she felt “impaled on the edge of madness.” It was as though she could hear two voices arguing inside her. “I can’t bear this. I’ll go mad. There’s no way I can endure this until morning.” The other replied, “You have to bear it, you have no choice.” Then, out of the chaos, came something new, a third voice which said, “You don’t have to get through until morning. You only have to get through the present moment.”

Title: Living Well With Pain and Illness
Author: Vidyamala Burch
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-747-0
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

She recalls: “Immediately, my experience was transformed. The tension torturing me opened into expansiveness…..I knew, not intellectually but in the marrow of my bones, that life can only unfold one moment at a time.”

But her insight is not only applicable to living with pain – it’s one any of us could adapt to countless unpleasant situations. This adaptability is a major strength of her book Living well with pain and illness – the mindful way to free yourself from suffering.

So much in this book applies to everybody who practices mindfulness as well as to those who experience chronic pain and stress that it will be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of every mindfulness practitioner.

It has an additional value if you suffer chronic pain: when it comes to developing a mindful relationship with with pain, Vidyamala Burch has credibility: she has walked the walk.

Her transformative insight set her off on her journey into mindfulness. Since then she has started the Breathworks programme for people who wish to use mindfulness to help with their pain and chronic stress. She lives in Britain and her website is at https://breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/

As I said above, this book has all sorts of great information and advice in it for anybody who uses mindfulness in their lives. Consider her Five-Step Model of Mindfulness:

1. Notice what you are experiencing right now.
2. Move toward the unpleasant.
3. Seek the pleasant.
4. Broaden awareness to become a bigger container and cultivate equanimity. In other words realise that you can contain both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
5. Choose to respond rather than react.

When I took a group through this series of steps recently they were very impressed by the third one – seeking the pleasant. Somehow they had got it into their heads that advocates of mindfulness were all in favour of turning towards pain but rather dismissive of turning towards pleasure. The idea that we should pay attention to the pleasant as well as to the unpleasant, since both are fleeting, was new and welcome.

But that’s not always easy if you’re in pain or discomfort. “Seeking the pleasant is like being an explorer searching for hidden treasure,” writes Vidyamala. “It might be as simple as noting the warmth of your hands or a pleasant feeling in the belly, or seeing a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window.”

Shutting out physical pain, she notes, can also mean shutting out pleasure: “Hardening against pain also shuts out the pleasurable side of life, and we lose the sensitivity that allows us to feel vibrantly alive and experience pleasure and love,” she writes. “You might not feel the pain so much, but you’ll numb yourself to other people, the beauty of nature, or the simple pleasure of the body’s warmth while sitting in the sun.”

I also loved instruction in the mindfulness of breathing practice to “drink from the well of the pause.” She is referring here to that little pause between the end of the out breath and the beginning of the in-breath, “A moment of hovering anticipation, a vibration that gathers into the next in-breath.” It’s a great way to practice mindfulness of breathing – for me, that’s a mindfulness practice in which I need something to hold onto and “drinking from the well of the pause” is that something.

The book also has many physical exercises with illustrations. These will be of particular help to people with chronic pain or stiffness – a source of hope and a practical demonstration of how to change your relationship with suffering.

I hope I’ve given enough indications here that this book is a gem, both for those who suffer pain and stress and for everybody with an interest in mindfulness. If you buy it and read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Padraig O’Morain teachers mindfulness in Ireland. His most recent book Is Light Mind – mindfulness for daily living. His mindfulness blog is at www.lightmindblog.blogspot.com

Read More
Menu