‘Mindful Awareness & Remembering’ is a better translation of the Pali word: Sati. It has become known simply as Mindfulness. I attended an all day conference at Sheffield’s Centre for Mindful Life Enhancement recently and was surprised to hear how popular it has become, even at Parliamentary level a report has been produced called ‘Mindful Nation UK‘ led by and around 145 MP’s are currently practising. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) for the treatment of recurrent depression. Research also shows positive effects on several aspects of whole-person health, including the mind, the brain, the body, and behaviour, as well as a person’s relationships with others.
This is the story of how I came to love Mindfulness.
I first started meditating in 1981, aged 15, using guidance from books on Yoga, Buddhism (and even Astral Projection!) from the central library. I learned Chi Gong (mindful movement practice similar to tai chi) from various masters during the 1990’s and continue with it daily today. In the 1980’s I had numerous experiences under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, which I know is controversial but it was an important component to my spiritual search. In 1988 I realised deeply that drugs were not the answer to my search as their effects are temporary and limited. Shortly thereafter I met a Sufi Master of the Naqshbandi Order in a public talk at Sheffield City Hall and I became his student. I followed the strict practices of the order for 20 years until near the time the Sheikh died. These practices included prayer, recitation and zikr (‘remembering’ awareness by chanting both quietly alone and aloud in groups). I lived a very ascetic lifestyle as the Sufi life took up every waking moment. For example, I would awake every night, two hours before dawn, to do meditation, zikr and prayer for three hours until the sun rose then went back to bed and awoke mid-morning to begin again. I fasted weekly and in Ramadan and performed many retreats in Sheffield, London and Northern Cyprus at the Sheikh’s home. I once spent 40 days and nights in my garden shed in a village near Glastonbury meditating and chanting by myself, only eating lentils and onions. In 2007 I broke from this religious lifestyle when I was living on the Isle of Skye, working as a postman and making a film about the island. The intensely natural island atmosphere gave me a fresh, new perspective. My family and I then returned to Sheffield. I was to pursue a Contemporary Fine Art degree and a career as an artist.
In 2008 I was reading works of Thich Nhat Hanh, which I found very healing at the time I was going through divorce. In 2010, I decided to see what the Sufi practices felt like again. I also undertook a counselling course and trained how to be a Muslim Chaplain; here it became evident to me I was trying to marry my spiritual leanings with a practical vocation. I applied for a couple of volunteer chaplaincy posts but then realised it wasn’t for me. When I was on my final year of my degree I learned Bohm Dialogue, a radical, mindful way of group dialogue, as part of our wider critique methodology. Dialogue was the best part of my whole three years at university.
Two years after graduating I learned Mindfulness Based Life Enhancement (MBLE) on an eight-week course led by Dr. John Darwin, based in the University’s Multi-faith Centre. I began reading and watching the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man generally accepted as the leading exponent of the modern Mindfulness movement in the West. He defines Mindfulness as “Awareness gained by paying attention to the development of experience with intention, here and now, moment by moment and in a non-judgmental way.”
On the MBLE course were formally taught a variety of tools including: sitting meditation, full body-scan, watching the breath, sounds, thoughts etc. mindful walking, mindful moving (yoga, chi gong etc.), thee minute breathing space, mindful dialogue, communication and eating and the Core Relational Qualities (loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity). We were taught that informal practice is about having mindful moments throughout the day where one is conscious of what is happening and what one is doing and experiencing. We explored the relationship of mindfulness to positive psychology, negativity bias, savouring, optimism, hope, gratitude and forgiveness, through experience not exposition. The course included a Day of Silence near the end which was a very good way of deepening the practice. Since then to the present day I maintain a morning Mindfulness practice and maintain contact with the Centre.
In 2015 I visited Plum Village Monastery, the Mindfulness Practice Centre of Thich Nhat Hanh, with my father. This commune is a very peaceful and loving place in the French countryside, where one can easily find deep peace, solace and love. Here I even met a famous African war general.
Many of the Mindfulness practices and principles of Buddhism match closely with the essence of Sufi practice. The core of them both is the premise that All is One – the universe is an indivisible unit. This understanding has always excited me and driven me to pursue learning and meaning. Mindful recollection of our primordial state is at the heart of the spiritual quest.
I have learned about many techniques and met numerous teachers. I read and watch interviews on an internet channel called Conscious TV. I have been on various Vipassana retreats of up to three days, with Sheffield Insight Meditation Group.
In 2011 I spent time at the Chisholme Institute, the home of the Beshara School in Scotland. I attended a short study course and worked in the forest. At Chisholme there are twice daily thirty-minute group meditation sessions. All the courses, learning, practices and living at Chisholme is done mindfully. I then started my own monthly study group in Sheffield, which started with thirty minutes’ silent meditation and ended with a mindful group walk in our nearby woods. Hester Reeve (my previous university tutor) and I held a four-hour Bohm Dialogue session at Chisholme for sixty five people and this was commenced with my leading a twenty minute guided Mindfulness session. Mindfulness is an intrinsic part of Dialogue and it is evident that for me it needs to be practically incorporated into Dialogue practice. I am now a member of the UK Academy of Professional Dialogue.
In 2014 I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and ADHD, after going to my GP to ask about mild depression and unusual thinking habits. I had also done the online test and came out positive. The diagnosis involved various interviews with neuroscientists in quiet, dimmed rooms. During one of the interviews I discussed my experiences with meditation and the notion of universal consciousness. This diagnosis and new understanding helped my mental state greatly and I could improve my meditation techniques. I have realised my spiritual journey is not separate from my diagnosis and my practices have helped me manage it and even lessen some of the more negative effects.
I started personal study of various other methods of meditation including some from the Advaita Vedanta tradition and now often incorporate some basic self-inquiry practices from this tradition. The thing I enjoy about Advaita is the philosophy that Supreme Consciousness is ever present and there is no difference between our inner and outer world.
Mindfulness is my own private practice where I have away to escape all of my thoughts and find bliss. To visit such communities and places such as the wonderful Plum Village is a bonus and to be able to connect with Mindful people locally is really great too. I am pleased that my children are very much involved in Mindfulness in their own ways too.
I have just started teaching Art and Mindfulness at The Art House in Sheffield. Next year I intend to undertake a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) teacher training course with the British Mindfulness Institute. I will be applying my experiences and these teaching skills to a two year course for autistic adults.