Awakening to our direct experience

Tree Eye by Wendy Ann GreenhalghWe have a tendency to be in our own little worlds. If you’re anything like me, then the virtual realities you create in your head, can seem just as powerful and persuasive at times, as the world around you. That’s the amazing thing about having a creative mind; the conceptual and imaginative is a space we inhabit on a regular basis.

But the aim of mindfulness is to wake up, to come into the present moment, to see the thoughts in the mind as concepts or stories or holograms rather than realities. In this sense, mindfulness is the opposite of the mind-set we associate with most of the time. Of course, when we are completely focused on our creating, in the flow, we are totally present, but this kind of presence is still quite different from the clear awake presence that allows us to just directly experience reality without thinking, imagining, or conceptualising – instead encountering life through simply being.

In my last two blogs I explored how body-based awareness grounds us, and in doing so allows us to begin to see the workings of our own mind. As we connect more with the sensations of our bodies, the restless nature of our monkey-mind is revealed. This dropping into the present moment through the direct feedback of the senses is the beginning of awareness. This is an awakening to the nature of reality. It allows us to begin to tame the monkey-mind, to rest in the present moment with a more full awareness of what’s in our heads and a deeper connection with the world around us.

Let’s try a simple mindfulness exercise, right now.

  1. I’d like you to sit comfortably and look at your hand. Hold it up and examine it. What words come into your head as you look at it? Hand? Fingers? Skin? If I look at mine I also think, freckles, lines, wrinkly knuckles, need to cut my nails. Keep looking at your hand and describing/thinking about it. Allow these descriptions to arise naturally from the experience of looking. Don’t censor yourself.
  2. Next, I’d like you to move your fingers and thumbs, staying focused on how that feels. Wave your hand in the air – feel the passing of the air over your skin. How does that feel? Try not to put words to the experience, just experience it! Touch something with your hand, your own face or your clothing, how does it feel?

Steps one and two of this exercise, illustrate the difference between thinking a hand and experiencing a hand. It highlights too, how all our experiences of the world are filtered through the act of thinking and through language. It is very rare that we directly experience anything; mostly we experience what we think about it. But once we’re aware of this, we can choose to be present. And this choice to be present, to wake up, can have a profound affect on us and on our writing.

It can be a challenge, waking up; I won’t deny that. We must wrestle with our habits of conceptualising and fantasising. We must face the fact that part of us would rather be asleep, that we like it. Being awake, being present, takes us out of virtuality and into contact with reality (whatever that is), and sometimes that can be a bit uncomfortable.

But if you take the leap into the now, you will also experience everything with an aliveness and immediacy that you’ve probably not felt since you were a child. Every time you come into awareness, into mindful presence you’ll encounter yourself and the world anew in all its extraordinary ordinariness. And waking up to the world feeds our creative life too. We become more observant, more sensitive to the people and places we encounter. We actually stop and notice them, rather than just encountering our thoughts about them.

Haiku – a tradition of poetry which grew out of the Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition, is a wonderful example of the beauty and lucidity mindfulness can bring to just one creative medium, writing. Writers like Basho, Shiki, Buson and Issa capture the miraculous and fleeting nature of reality through their intention to remain awake and present and write about their direct experience. And contemporary western writers, such as the Scottish poet, Alan Spence, continue to use the form to write with immediacy of the everyday world they encounter.

And if once again, this all sounds rather idealised, rather conceptual, then let me end by suggesting that once you’re on the path of mindfulness, and become familiar with the feeling of not being present, you’ll find this very useful. Imagine if every time you caught yourself projecting into the future or dwelling in the past, obsessing or fretting or daydreaming – you chose to wake-up instead. How much more grounded, balanced and productive you’d be. And getting on the path of mindfulness is as simple as that – forming an intention to be awake, right here right now – and acting on it.

Here’s a final mindfulness exercise to finish.

  • Sit with your breath for a couple of minutes. Experience the whole life cycle of your breath, the in and the out. If your mind wanders come back to the breath.
  • Shift your awareness from the breath to the sense of your body sitting in a room. Get a sense of how that room feels around you. The sounds, the smells, a felt sense of space.
  • Say to yourself inside your head – right here right now. Form a firm intention to be in the present moment. Continue to breathe and have a sense of yourself sitting in the room. If you become distracted – say again to yourself – right here right now – and return intentionally to being present, noticing what you are experiencing. Do this for a couple of minutes.
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