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Clarifying mindfulness

Had a wonderful retreat in the cold, perpetual daylight of Iceland. The lovely Reykjavik sangha organized a fantastic 35-person retreat in a school out in the Icelandic countryside. About 45 minutes from the capital.

It was interesting for me to teach a completely other nationality. Icelanders are polite and droll but are cagey about sharing too much of their inner process. However, they all worked very hard on the retreat. And in the steady, unflinching light of summer in Iceland, I feel we all (seven Britons included) came to some clarity around mindfulness and Iceland.

Making sure everyone understands what the practice entails is vital

One of the things I now spend a long time clarifying at the beginning of a mindfulness retreat is what exactly this practice is about.

There are so many misconceptions about meditation. “I can’t clear my mind of thoughts” being the number one culprit. Making sure everyone understands what the practice entails is vital. Otherwise, the whole week can be spent with crossed wires.

Three main streams of meditation

Mindfulness is a very specific practice that comes out of the Buddhist canon of meditation practices. Looking back at the history of these practices which arise from the Buddhist flowering of essentially Indian (Hindu) practices in 550 BC, we can see three main streams of meditation:

  1. visualization: where we harnass the power of the thinking mind to create powerful emotional mindstates. So the Tibetan practice of Chenrezig, where you imagine yourself becoming the Buddha of Compassion, is a perfect example. The thinking mind is tasked with constructing a visualization which then unleashes an emotional and system-wide feeling of love and compassion

  2. concentration ( or in Pali, samadhi: a key practice in monastic tradition and the closest we get to ‘clearing the mind’. Samadhi is one of the eightfold paths of Buddhist practice. It involved concentrating the mind one-pointedly on an object – the breath, a mantra – to exclusion of all else. The purpose of this absorptive concentration is to enter the mind into blissful states of great power called jhanas.

  3. mindfulness (or in Pali, sati. This is a very different practice from samadhi but forms the second of the two meditative paths in the Eightfold Way. Mindfulness is not a concentration practice in an exclusive sense. Rather it is about opening our steady awareness to everythingthat is arising in our field of being. We steady our attention using an anchor. And sit peacefully aware of what is arising for us – without trying to change it.

Being OK with what is

The revolutionary aspect of Mindfulness is this quality of ‘not changing’. Our whole lives – conditioned by parenting, schooling and society – are premised on the need to change. Something is wrong with us, we are lacking, the world is not enough and so we need to change. The power of mindfulness comes in not changing in a being OK with what is – as a starting point.

So when I sent my Icelandic retreatants out to wander in the bright evening. Eyes open, no special moves, no special slowness. But just being in their bodies in the world – it felt almost transgressive for some of us. Just being, with no need to change, no effort to correct, improve or perfect, seems extraordinary. And so it is.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Iceland. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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