Advance Praise for “Mindfulness Starts Here” – Steve Flowers

UoOHS-12NOV19Whether you have been practicing mindfulness for many years or for you  Mindfulness Starts Here is where your introduction to mindfulness begins – you have found a treasure here that you will probably read again and again. This lovely book from Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten is a beautiful tapestry of wisdom and love that can guide you through life’s hardships and awaken in your life greater joy, loving-kindness and well-being.

Steve Flowers, MS, MFT, has been a mindfulness teacher for 16 years and is the author of The Mindful Path through Shyness and co-author (with Bob Stahl) Living with your Heart Wide Open.

We love to tell the story of sitting in a cozy nook with Steve during the busy Center of Mindfulness (UMass) conference in 2012 discussing the ups and downs of publishing a book. We commiserated on how hard it was to choose a good title and Steve asked about our book. As we dithered about what to call it, he said, in true MB Teacher mode, “What do you want to call it?”

“Mindfulness starts here! Right here. Right now!” we responded.

Cover-email

 

“Well then?”

And so ended the quest to find a suitable title for our book. Thanks, Steve!

Living skillfully. Living well.

From Right Mindfulness: A guide to living skillfully© by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten

Mindfulness as a word, a concept, and a practice permeates our awareness these days. We learn of ways to be mindful through meditation and intentional attention so that we can cope with the myriad challenges that arise, often unexpectedly, in our life. Sometimes we can greet the depression, anxiety, eating disorder, or physical pain with composure; sometimes we find ourselves swamped with the physical and emotional sensations of the experience. We deeply wish to be able to live well through the good and bad times and we may often feel we lack the skills to achieve that apparently simple goal. In this book, we will work together to cultivate our capacity to live skillfully with careful attention so that living well is the outcome in each moment.

As a word, mindfulness has been around for centuries. In our own lives it would have shown up in the very simple advice given by our grandparents and parents. “Be careful.” “Stop and think.” “What were you trying to do?” “Wait a second.” All of these statements were little bells calling us back in to the present moment when we had gone off on some track or were operating on an automatic mode when doing something. They bring us into a state of remembering what we are doing in each moment. In fact, the translation of the original word for mindfulness, sati, means to remember.

The concept of mindfulness is a little more complex. It folds in ideas of being “in the flow” of things, experiences of fullness, peace and “being one” with an activity or a scene. There is fluidity in the concept which lends itself to our ideas of “Zen-like states” although we may not really know what a “Zen-like state” is. It is a construct that points to our state of mind as we interact with our internal and external environment. Large volumes have been written about this idea and it would be easy to get lost in the intellectual process of trying to understand it.

The practice of mindfulness is perhaps the most important in our understanding of “Mindfulness.” Like learning to ride a bicycle, we can understand it as a word and a concept but until we actually get on that little seat and find the pedals, we haven’t begun to truly experience the word or idea. In this book, we will unpack this part of mindfulness: the behaviours that go into creating a practice that leads us in the direction of well being. To do that we will constantly come back and remember the process of mindfulness as it is relevant to living skillfully: creating an intention to well being, paying attention to what is in this moment, and approaching what is with an attitude of curiousity and openness.

Let’s look at how this unfolds in our awareness as a stream of experience. In our multi-layered life, there are experiences in which we hold our breath in awe or surprise; where the body vibrates with joy and excitement; or when the mind rests gently like a butterfly landing on an open flower. In those moments we find ourselves fully attentive: open and available as both butterfly and flower, intertwined. In contrast, when we encounter painful times, we close our attention off from the experience and we become unavailable to the pain which threatens to overwhelm us. We develop a reluctance to re-engage in the things that remind us of or cause us to revisit those painful moments. Our attention is diverted and distracted leaving us with a sense of life that is fractured and fragmented.

Being human, our attention is drawn and attaches to sensations that are pleasant and joyful. As they fade, those momentary experiences become an ache and a yearning which drive us in many directions – not all of which lead to good health. We activate our intention to live well by trying to recapture the pleasurable moments and avoid the unpleasant ones. This is perfectly understandable. It is our idea of what it means to live well. However, it doesn’t take long before we begin to notice that, despite our best intentions, we may not be choosing the actions that are most likely to help us live well. Along with our best intentions, we also need to be skilful in the means we choose to foster well being.

Imagine having had a wonderful meal. The body is nourished; the sensations are activated. There is a feeling of being replenished, satisfied, and energized. Now imagine carrying the leftovers around for months in the hopes that they will continue to evoke the same sensations. We might even have done something like it when we order the same meal from the restaurant menu because it was once delicious or crave an activity or substance that gave us a lift away from the ordinary. Hanging onto the past or chasing after the future are unskillful means by which we hope to fulfill or protect ourselves but they are unlikely to have healthy consequences.

Our tendency to prefer the lighter, pleasant moments, to block out or run from the unpleasant ones, and to feel restless (bored) when things are neutral is normal (but not healthy). The consequence, however, is an experience of dissatisfaction when our preferences are not available to us. Living skillfully is cultivated by the way our body and mind meet the events that occur in our lives. When we are able to enter that interface with an attitude of even-handed observation of what is present, our quality of attention becomes steady, and living well is the outcome.

Attention to the nature of our experience generates our intentions to live well and the actions we choose to realize those intentions are guided by our attitude towards the experience. Joy and woe are part of our lives and there is little we can do to control their appearance. However, in the practice of mindfulness, we learn to focus our attention on how our experience is unfolding, work with what is truly possible in the experience, and cultivate an attitude that nourishes our well being independent of the valence (positive, negative or neutral) of the experience.

Using the North Star to guide our practice

Taking a mindfulness program, we acquire many skills to pay attention to our lives as it is in this moment.  During and after the course, we can benefit from ways to encourage our practice to be consistent and continuous.  A steady practice is beneficial for sustaining well-being and requires appropriate effort and direction in practising.  Let’s look at some ways a strong practice can emerge from our efforts. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhist practice (in our case, the Five Skillful Habits) as being a North Star that guides our practice.  The point of using the North Star is to keep us on course; it is not about getting to the North Star.  In other words, we aspire to live out our intentions and not live up to some ideal of practice or of life.  Even in living out our intentions, it’s important to remember that we are constantly adjusting our course and adapting to circumstances.  Again, practice is in the letting go of concepts like “good” or “perfect.”  For example, if our intention is to get to the grocery store, we pay attention to the route we take and stay alert for detours or minors adjustments in our path there.  We don’t assume that getting on the road is the same as arriving at the store. Both during the course and when we meet with our Alumni, we emphasize three commitments to sustain well-being. 

The first is practising continuously.  Potential participants who come to the information sessions ask how many hours they should put aside to do the homework.  We tend to be very straightforward in answering this question: 24/7.  Practice is a constant returning to what is happening in this moment.  In that sense, it is continuous and seamless. 

The second commitment is to see practice as completeAnother Zen teacher who is also an artist teaches that an enso (a Zen circle drawn in one stroke of the brush) contains the perfect and imperfect.  In that sense, it is complete.  So it is with practice.  It will contain the perfect and the imperfect.  It will have moments of sloppiness and single-pointed concentration.  It will always be complete.

The third commitment is to look up to the horizon.  In a moment of pain, we tend to fold over and become clutched around our pain.  This is the source of our suffering.  When we lift our vision up from what has captured us, we see the larger context of what we are experiencing.  There may be pain and there is also a multitude of other experiences that are occurring at the same time.  Buddhist teacher Tara Brach speaks of being caught in the trance of our experience.  Looking up from that experience breaks the trance and opens up the possibility of meeting it differently.

–excerpt from our clinic’s guidebook:  Sustaining Well-being through Compassion, Chapter 7 of Right Mindfulness – A guide to skillful living by Lynette Monteiro & Frank Musten

Exploring Mindfulness

Excerpt from the Introduction of our clinic guidebook (we’re working on progress too!  encourage us to finish this book by leaving your reflections on these sections)

Living Skillfully, Living Well

Mindfulness as a word, a concept, and a practice permeates our awareness these days.  We learn of ways to be mindful through meditation and intentional attention so that we can cope with the myriad challenges that arise, often unexpectedly, in our life.  Sometimes we can greet the depression, anxiety, eating disorder, or physical pain with composure; sometimes we find ourselves swamped with the physical and emotional sensations of the experience.  We deeply wish to be able to live well through the good and bad times and we may often feel we lack the skills to achieve that apparently simple goal.  In this course, we will work together to cultivate our capacity to live skillfully with careful attention so that living well is the outcome in each moment.

As a word, mindfulness has been around for centuries.  In our own lives it would have shown up in the very simple advice given by our grandparents and parents.  “Be careful.”  “Stop and think.”  “What were you trying to do?”  “Wait a second.”  All of these statements were little bells calling us back in to the present moment when we had gone off on some track or were operating on an automatic mode when doing something.  They bring us into a state of remembering what we are doing in each moment.  In fact, translation of the original word for mindfulness, sati, means to remember.

The concept of mindfulness is a little more complex.  It folds in ideas of being “in the flow” of things, experiences of fullness, peace and “being one” with an activity or a scene.  There is fluidity in the concept which lends itself to our ideas of “zen-like states” although we may not really know what a “zen-like state” is.  It is a construct that points to our state of mind as we interact with our internal and external environment.  Large volumes have been written about this idea and it would be easy to get lost in the intellectual process of trying to understand it.

The practice of mindfulness is perhaps the most important in our understanding of “Mindfulness.”  Like learning to ride a bicycle, we can understand it as a word and a concept but until we actually get on that little seat and find the pedals, we haven’t begun to truly experience the word or idea.  In this course, we will unpack this part of mindfulness: the behaviours that go into creating a practice that leads us in the direction of well being.  To do that we will constantly come back and remember the process of mindfulness as it is relevant to living skillfully: creating an intention to well being, paying attention to what is in this moment, and approaching what is with an attitude of curiousity and openness.

Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is like the elephant being defined by the blind men.  Its definition is embedded in the experience and wisdom of the practitioner.  In a program designed to relieve pain (albeit we avoid being goal-directed), the usual story of mindfulness told by our practitioners is infused with visions of peace, serenity, freedom from suffering, and happiness.  This is inescapable; we are, after all, storytellers.  At best, these stories hold a promise of better things to come; we imagine a future life without suffering from the pain of physical or emotional injuries.  At worst, our stories can lead to another disappointment in our attempts to escape the inevitable; the pain may not recede as we had hoped and we are left facing the fatigue of managing it one more day.  Whatever the emotional result of our stories, they are always an opportunity to explore possibilities.

“Right” mindfulness in this context has nothing to do with our usual understanding of “doing the right thing.”  In fact, it has nothing to do with “doing” anything.  “Right” mindfulness is the process of seeing clearly into our situation, using the wisdom of our experience, and making choices that move us towards or sustain our wellbeing.  To practice right mindfulness, we cultivate steadiness in the face of challenges so that our wisdom can guide our intentions effectively.