Take a deep breath, I tell myself. You can do this. Within 48 hours of returning to Australia from a three-year backpacking adventure, I had embarked on a retreat at a gonpa in northern NSW with my mother and three close friends. We had A LOT to catch up on and this was a FOUR-DAY SILENT mission of mindfulness. I adopted my sitting position, adjusted my cushion, and thought obsessively about itching my nose. Is this really the best idea for my first catch-up with much-missed loved ones?
As it turns out, it was the perfect idea. It was not hard to make peace with my restricted speaking environment, especially when surrounded by friendship and love embodied as four graceful and generous souls. I continued to sit during physical comfort and discomfort, and I was supported through my mental challenges by the sheer presence of others.
Marike Knight, founder of Melbourne-based Cool Karma Collected, says going on retreat with others can be a deeply connecting experience as so much of mindfulness is about feeling a deeper connection with all of humanity. “We realise our problems aren’t personal. Everyone experiences the crazy mind. Everyone’s crazy! Everyone has doubts and fears.”
Marike runs mindfulness and yoga courses, retreats and classes and, when we speak, she has just returned from two retreats – one at Aro Ha, New Zealand, and one in Daylesford, Victoria, where she meditated in silence with 45 others. “You’re alone in it because it’s so personal but you’re never lonely because you’re in it together and experiencing it together.”
I remember myself, wrapped in a sumptuous, woollen shawl, my friends and other yogis sitting cross-legged, gazes low, around me. Together we hear the noises of nature, the occasional creaking of timber from the rafters, and the sound of winter rain blowing through the hills. But we experience our own inner worlds, different turmoils and various triggers and remedies to our vast array of emotions. I feel a bond with my fellow meditators. I am seeking guidance for my thoughts, while the silent companionship of others provides an external cocoon of support.
I ask Marike, a former lawyer who knows the effects of long hours and too much stress, why mindfulness is important. “We just don’t have an off button anymore,” she says. “We’re such a 24/7 society and because of the ferociousness of our lives, it’s a desperate need. Through mindful-based stress reduction, I’m teaching people how to manage their life better. People want to be able to switch off and they want to turn their minds off and the reality is that’s difficult to do. Mindfulness is not something you can enforce on people; they have to be willing because it takes courage to stop and just be.”
Marike says it can be overwhelming knowing we can’t control life’s big events, like if we’ll have children, the fate of our loved ones, or when we’re going to die. Through her role as a facilitator, she aims to create safe spaces for people “to dip a toe into their own inner experience, no matter how scary that might be”.
She says mindfulness “feels like a space that’s cradled by something bigger” and it’s essential we listen to ourselves. We shouldn’t over-strive and it helps to remember that sometimes we don’t need to use 100% of our energy, for example, during a yoga class … 50% might be enough. “I’ve struggled with this myself. I broke my elbow in handstand. I’ve had lots of messages from the universe telling me to sit and stop striving.”
To begin a mindfulness practice, we’re encouraged to build our muscle of awareness, or as Marike describes, “It’s building the bicep muscle in the brain.” Begin with breath awareness. Then, your brain might notice something, like a tree. Experience the breath. Your mind might wander back to the tree, and when you notice your mind has wandered, that’s mindfulness! You have cultivated awareness. Marike calls this the completion of one bicep curl. Next, return to your breath, your mind wanders again, you notice, and you bring your attention back to your breath. Two bicep curls.
To transfer this “mind practice” into daily life, think about when you are talking with someone, and you become distracted. “You notice when your mind wanders or when you judge. A regular mindfulness practice helps you develop a greater strength of muscle in the brain to go, ‘Oh, come back and listen … listen to them, hear them.”
A few days after we speak, Marike sends me Kent Nerburn’s poignant poem about a mindful New York taxi driver. I thank her, saying it has left me in tears and I am stopping to have a cup of tea. She writes back: “Enjoy your tea. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world Earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Serenely, I sip my chai, inspired by Marike’s message and wondering if her kindness is what meditators are trying to convey when they discuss living authentically. Byron Bay’s Melli O’Brien, aka Mrs Mindfulness, believes mindfulness is a “radical act of intelligence and love towards yourself and the planet” and authenticity is essential. “Living mindfully to me means living authentically,” Melli says. “When I say authentic, I mean being willing to be vulnerable and real with what’s going on for us with other human beings. It’s very intimate; everybody has a fear they’re not worthy or won’t be loved. Mindfulness opens a space where there’s a way of being in touch with who I am so that even when I have those fears, mostly I can still turn up as an authentic person. The preciousness of that is I live a life that’s true to me and when I connect with others, it’s a real connection. I really crave that; I think most of us do.”
Melli incorporates plenty of yoga in her mindfulness teachings and she also specialises in immersion retreats. She is responsible for the internationally acclaimed Mindfulness Summit, a not-for-profit project that last year gathered more than 40 experts worldwide – including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, and Susan Albers – for a series of online interviews, teachings and practice sessions. So far, more than 250,000 people have taken part.
I am curious. Melli’s life is overflowing with meditative devotion, so who or what inspired her? She explains that she used to listen to the elderly residents in the nursing home where she worked as they recollected what had really made them happy. “The message was that shuffling around the external circumstances of your life does not give you what you ultimately want, which is a lasting sense of fulfilment and wholeness. It can give you pleasure, but the core essence was that a life fully lived is a life where you realise the little moments aren’t little. There’s no such thing as a mundane moment.
“Don’t spend your life waiting for the big thing to happen. Make the most of what’s here now because this is it, this is life, and it passes you by so fast, so don’t waste it. When some of the elderly people knew they were nearing death, they would say, ‘Oh, all the things I thought mattered, they don’t really matter. All that matters is being fully alive and being fully who you are.’ That was it.”
Northern NSW mindfulness trainer, educator and yoga teacher Shakti Burke says a mindfulness approach will not appear magically, but setting daily intentions can help introduce mindfulness to your routine. Shakti teaches the three reliable anchors of mindfulness: body (bringing awareness into your body), breath (connecting with your breath) and senses (noticing immediately what is in front of you). These, she says, “provide a safe haven when we’re blown about by the wind of mindlessness”.
She says one useful technique is to walk more mindfully. Another is to notice when your breath becomes short or you sense stress creeping in. “Use this as a trigger to slow and deepen your breath and start to relax your body. Each time you feel that trigger, then immediately slow the breath and relax the body and make that a habitual reaction. Rather than fleeing from that stress, you’re welcoming it with the appropriate response, which is releasing the breath, maybe self-empathy, and relaxing the body.”
Shakti says the practice also involves noticing when judgement arises which provides objectivity and allows us to step back. “We feel lighter and happier and our nervous system calms.” The importance of non-judgement, including not judging yourself, is paramount. Many of us would even default to judging our own practice of non-judgement. Mindfulness meditator and educator Michael Shaw says we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but the reality is, “Everyone can meditate because whatever comes is part of the meditation. You cannot get a meditation wrong.” Michael was inspired when a former teacher told him, “You can’t always have the meditation you want, but you can always have the meditation you’re having.”
Michael is the director of Inside Out Ed, an anti-bullying program based in Melbourne which uses mindfulness as its main tool, and he teaches mindfulness classes at Yoga by Nature in Brunswick Heads. He says the main obstacle to meditating is a belief we can’t do it. “What confronts us first in meditation is that in the act of closing our eyes and paying attention, we meet the contents of our minds and the sensations in our bodies without our usual and endless distractions. When we recognise how much is going on in our minds and bodies, we can feel confronted and perhaps even failed in our attempts. It’s important to be compassionate to this as part of the human condition.”
Practicing compassion to ourselves and others is central to living mindfully. It’s also imperative when
recognising the burden of our busy lives and therefore is a vital part of managing, maintaining and contributing to our overall health. Doctors worldwide are becoming more familiar with the techniques of mindfulness, not only as a prescription for their patients, but also as a method of self-care. Associate professor and senior lecturer at Monash University’s Department of General Practice, Dr Craig Hassed, is passionate about the benefits of mindfulness to our personal health and the health of our relationships. Dr Hassed, (who has written ample books on the subject including The Mindful Home, Mindfulness for Life, and New Frontiers in Medicine) urges doctors to use mindfulness to manage their own stress and teaches them how it can be a benefit clinically with patients, especially those suffering anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or coping with major illnesses.
Outside the medical world, he believes society would prosper if more people meditated, were exposed to less screen time, and consciously enjoyed more meal times together. “The informal practice of mindfulness is being present and attentive while we’re going about our day-to-day life. There’s not a lot of point in being mindful for 5, 10, 20 or 40 minutes in the day and then being unmindful for the other 23 hours.”
Mindfulness, he explains, can also improve our relationships with those around us because we learn to be aware and notice as reactions arise inside us. “In that moment between the reaction and as it’s arising – before it’s expressed – that’s the window of opportunity that opens up if there’s awareness. We are then able to choose how we respond,” he says.
“Today, we’re very removed from ourselves, not connected and easily distracted with who and where we are. We are always anticipating the future or regretting or retreating from a past … we’ve forgotten how to be present.”
If we have forgotten how to be present – as a society or as calm-seeking individuals – what should we do? I pursue the help of Justine Buckley – Gestalt psychotherapist, counsellor, and expert in Buddhist psychology and mindfulness – from the Mudita Institute and Health Clinic in Mullumbimby. I arrive on her doorstep late, frazzled and mentally scattered. She suggests we meditate. Her voice, as it guides my messy inner ramblings towards some sense of unity, is gentle. She’s leading me easily from dispersed to gathered, disordered to unified … she is a very welcome mental chaperone.
When we talk, Justine offers insights and wisdom in a way that makes so much sense. Emanating compassion, she says, “Our number one port of call is to be kind to ourselves.” Often, when we tap into that kindness, creating a safe space, all the “broken” parts of ourselves – just like distressed children – come forward. These are all our emotions that have been starved of a kind atmosphere and the rush of emotion can be overwhelming for a person because these feelings may have been suppressed for many years. Justine says that to help people who have faced trauma, difficult emotions can be looked at, mindfully, “bit by bit, as we would digest a big meal”.
Doko Hatchett – mindfulness teacher, zen master and founder of Mudita Institute – says mindfulness holds the key to the artful precision required to understand and refine our lives. “It is the art of remembering to hold something steady enough, for long enough, and in such a way, that causes concentration, insight, and wisdom to flourish.” Doko teaches that we’re not developing mindfulness and concentration to escape from life, we are developing concentration to ‘end’ our meeting of life unskillfully.
Justine explains that mindfulness should be practiced in the good times to develop qualities which can then show up for you when you need them. Otherwise, she says, we’re at the mercy of habitual or conditioned responses and ways of thinking, reacting and behaving.
“Essentially a mindfulness practice is not separate to our daily life; it’s embedded in our daily life. It is our daily life. It’s a practice of giving our best attention, bringing as much of our energy to this present moment that we can muster.”
For example, if we feel anxious, she says, we can say “hello” to our anxiety and ask it how we can help, ask our anxiety what it needs. “We start by bringing non-panic to that situation. Anxiety is going to arise, you can’t help it … here it is … but I do have a choice about how to respond. If I’m busy and in my habitual flow, I have no awareness, and without awareness I have no choice in how I’m going to respond helpfully to that emotion.
“Your mind is like a wild horse, and if it’s not trained, it does gallop and we’ve got no control over where it gallops and where our attention goes, and it will fall into habitual patterns … in Buddhism we would say anger or ignorance. Our attention is often obsessed with our problems and sorting our problems. With mindfulness, we’re calming things down, by stepping out of the problem-solution dynamic.”
Justine describes the Buddhist term, kalyanamitta, which means “our lovely friends”. She says, “It’s important to be surrounded by lovely friends externally, but we also need to look after the good friends inside us. We’re used to bumping into the not-so-lovely friends inside us like our pain, our trauma, our anger, grief, aggression, impatience, and our unkindness to ourselves.
“Through mindfulness, we’re wanting to water and pay attention to the good friends inside us such as goodwill to ourselves, our equanimity, and our willingness to give our best self to a situation, to help a situation, rather than asking why, which brings more stress and winds us tightly.”
However mindfulness, Justine says, is not a cold mental exercise. “It’s a whole being’s response to this life we’ve been given. It’s very heartfelt. I have faith in mindfulness and self-compassion. It’s delightful to sit back and see, wow, if we do these things, if we put our attention to developing warmth and patience with ourselves, the world is transformed.”
The day after my time with Justine, I practice early-morning yoga with two friends at the top of a rugged beach headland. As we move through our sequence, we see a pod of northbound humpback whales. Their presence is breathtaking and my mind is suspended in a moment of wonder. I feel calm. I breathe. Then my mental chatter returns. The whales are a tribe, faithfully shepherding their young on an annual pilgrimage. I notice my thoughts. I return to the breath. My mind is active yet not invasive. The whales are guiding each other to warmer waters. I see the majestic underbelly of one of the pod’s pathfinders as he breaches straight ahead. I notice, I breathe. I lap up the warmth of a magnificent sunrise and am intensely grateful for an inner sensation of awareness … of spiritual guidance … aglow in my heart.
Further information: www.muditainstitute.com; www.coolkarmacollected.com; www.themindfulnesssummit.com; www.mrsmindfulness.com; www.joyfulmind.net.au; www.insideouted.com.au; www.yogabynature.com.au; www.futurelearn.com/courses/mindfulness-wellbeing-performance