It feels important to recognise that basically everyone has a different understanding and definition of what mindfulness is.
In this guide I am talking about a sense of embodied awareness, where we feel that we are able to stay open to receiving experience as it is and see it clearly.
This is inextricably linked to the heart state of friendliness, or loving kindness. Our heart and mind work together to create an open, spacious and welcoming sense of awareness towards experience.
The biggest killer to mindfulness is when we are in opposition to the world – then we get into a reactive state where our only priority is to get to safety.
If we fall into opposition with life we narrow down on the thing that we are in opposition to. Our perspective becomes clouded and we put all our energy into defending ourselves or attacking what we are in opposition to, rather than understanding the situation and making space for it to be as it is.
The mind can only become open, happy and aware of what is really going on after it knows it can be safe.
Mindfulness is about remaining open to a situation, whatever it brings, and being aware of the process that is going on inside and out. It has become a bit synonymous with paying attention to a very slim subset of experience. I think it’s more meaningful to aim to become aware of what is going on, whatever that is.
A lot of deep and productive mindfulness practice is about proactively opening our minds to aspects of our experience that we usually resist or aren’t normally aware of – the more mystical or dark aspects of life, for example.
Friendliness helps with this because it creates a way of opening to the world where we assume that we are all in it together. Rather than going into opposition with the world and adopting fixed mindsets, we retain a curious, calm and open mind to what is happening.
When we are open to the information we are receiving, this gives us the capacity to understand a situation and respond in a way that feels wise and loving.
When we feel our safety is at risk, our brains start to shut down and our reactive system takes over. We are trying to navigate ourselves to safety either by:
We’ve developed these responses because they are vital for keeping us safe.
Our modern world is incredibly confusing for our minds. We are physically safer than we’ve ever been but our minds feel less safe. We are constantly being triggered into a reactive state when we’re not in appropriate situations to release the adrenaline and physiological changes in our bodies that this is designed to do. This gets stuck inside of in the form of trauma or habit energy.
We need to revisit some of the ways in which we have learned to protect ourselves, in order to rebalance our systems and feel more empowered in life. I talk about this more in the practices.
If we can cultivate our capacity to meet more of life with a sense of friendliness and mindful awareness, then we reduce the amount of time we are in opposition with the world and increase the amount of time we are open and aware of what is happening.
The ultimate wisdom is moving away from the idea of right and wrong and seeing that we are all in this together, just trying to figure out a way of getting home to a place where we all feel safe, loved, seen and understood.
Our society is a cognitive dissonance nightmare. It is flooded with things that constantly trigger our ‘danger’ signals: strangers, crowds, conflict, alerts, bad news, bullying, imagery of violence.
Yet we are mostly physically very safe. When our bodies kick into a reactive state (fight/flight/freeze/fawn) it is actually good to let them do the things they want to do – attack something, run away, freeze still or huddle close – but our physical surroundings don’t support that.
By the time we’ve got into a reactive state, it can be too late to calm ourselves down in the situation we are in. Huge swathes of our rational mind shut down and we turn into angry lizards. We need to remove ourselves from the situation and give ourselves time and space to release what we need, in order to come back to ourselves.
Exercise or sleep can help us release the physiological effects of a reactive state. Long deep out-breaths are the best way to calm your nervous system and come back to your body.
We actually have two nervous systems:
Doing a deep belly breath and a long slow breath out of the nose that lasts at least four seconds will take you out of your sympathetic nervous system and into your parasympathetic nervous system. It is a signal to your body that you are safe.
If we can create the conditions for us to feel safe in our lives, then we are less likely to end up in a reactive state. A huge part of this is creating a sense of radical self-acceptance towards our own inner worlds. To allow our minds to express what can be inappropriate for our bodies to express, in a way that feels safe and full.
Our mind’s job is to process everything that is going on in our experience into something we can understand and to come up with creative solutions and ideas.
Our thoughts don’t belong to us. They are arising from all sorts of different places: our history, our environment, our genes, our animal-nature, other people’s minds.
In spiritual practice there is the concept of the still, pure mind. I love my creative, interesting brain and I have only ever managed to tame it by taking the life-force out of it, which has not been worth the pay-off.
I like to fully embrace the idea of the mind as the hell-realm in the sense that it is what makes life interesting. Rather than resisting ‘bad’ thoughts, we are actively making room for them, which allows them to pass through with more ease.
Here are some practices that help me do that:
The thinking mind gets given a bad rap in meditation and spirituality. It is often demonised and I think a lot of practices aim to repress it. I prefer to consider how I can direct all that demonic life-force into something that feels good and does good.
Our minds are the places that can take us away from our bodies and our present moment. We over-do this in our society, so this is often considered a ‘bad’ thing in spirituality, but once we have learned to come back home to ourselves a little bit we can realise the potential behind this amazing capacity of the mind.
It’s good to be able to be more present in the body and in the moment. It can be pleasant and it helps us realise that we only ever have this moment to experience life. Another reason is because it actually gives the chance for the mind to rest, which makes the mind a more effective and fun place to be when it is online.
We are constantly multi-tasking and its one of the worst things we can do for our brains. It’s like having hundreds of browser tabs open all running automatic videos and music. It’s a nightmare. If we can learn to close some of the tabs, by letting those thoughts flow through us and out, then we can create a bit more of a spacious and pleasant space in our heads.
Having a growth mindset allows us to stay open even when things aren’t going as well as we’d hoped. It creates space around the concepts of failure.
This is about learning to see the gap between where we are and where we would like to be as an opportunity for growth, rather than a negative reflection on us.
Having a felt sense and perception of impermanence allows us to keep an open heart and mind to the situations we find ourselves in. Recognising that how things are now is not how they will always be helps us to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
When things are bad, it is useful to think about how things have been bad before and how they will be bad again. This is just one phase of bad in a series of changing circumstances. Equally, when things are good we can learn to appreciate them for how they are now as we know things will change.
This impermanent nature of things is interacting at all the different levels of our lives. It could be a momentary feeling, the mood of our day, how our decade is going or the current global situation.
Another important part of embodying a sense of impermanence is coming to terms with death. Remember that fear is the biggest enemy to mindfulness. So if we can spend some time contemplating death and coming to terms with it, it buys us some freedom.
We all only have a given amount of time on this earth. Accepting that you and your loved ones will all die someday means that you can approach even this fate with a certain amount of spaciousness and welcoming.
When we are more aware of and in touch with what is actually happening in our experience, we can start to move from a place heartful wisdom.
We can adopt a way of being where we are open and curious in relationships to ourselves and others and have the clarity to be in touch with what really matters.
We have this concept that we are able to categorise our relationships. Certain people are colleagues, certain relationships are transactional, we love our families and we like our friends.
The reality is much more fluid than this. There is a saying in spiritual circles that everyone you encounter is a teacher. There is quite a lot of truth in this, we are constantly modelling ways of being and learning from each other, but it is more true that everyone and everything we encounter is an emotional connection.
If we can cultivate the capacity to greet more people as if they were a friend, it opens up a huge amount of space for us to be more aware and mindful of the way we are interacting.
Friendliness is ultimately a way of opening to receiving the world that doesn’t assume that others are in opposition to you. You can stay calm, present and aware of the situation, rather than being reactive and clouded. This can extend even when there is a misunderstanding or a disagreement; you can agree to disagree.
When we are more open to and aware of our subjective experience, we can start to notice how reality isn’t as fixed as we might have thought – ideas, sensations, emotions and meaning are actually resonating through our beings and that is how they come to life in experience.
There are things things that resonate with our bodies, things that resonate with our hearts and things that resonate with our minds. It is good to get in touch with these things and to get some clarity on which is which.
Things that resonate with our bodies, like music, our physical wellbeing and our environments will shape our thoughts. If we are stood in a beautiful landscape our bodies will feel different to if we are standing somewhere stressful, like a noisy city street corner. It is worth being aware of this as it will shape our perceptions of the world. We could be thinking about the same idea and attach completely different valence to it if we are in a pleasant situation compared to if we are in an unpleasant environment.
The heart’s resonance are the things that really move us. It is what we feel most deeply and enduringly, the things that make us feel like we are coming home. Sometimes we find this in a person or place or activity where we can sustain this feeling or sometimes it is something like a poem or song that touches on something in the core of our being. It can cause us to cry or smile or laugh.
The mind’s resonance is more like a fleeting moment of inspiration. It’s the moment where we recognise ourselves in something. Like seeing an on-point meme that we can relate to and smiling to ourselves. When we are being creative, letting our minds wander until we hit on a moment of resonance is really useful.
Learning to distinguish between the body’s resonance, the heart’s resonance and the mind’s resonance is one of the most powerful things you can do in life.
The mind’s resonance isn’t going to give us any long-term sense of happiness or fulfilment, it is very fleeting and not something we can chase, it comes to us. If we buy things or buy into ideas or make decisions based on what our mind wants, we will find that the happiness soon fades.
This is where addiction comes from and it is what Buddhism talks about with the concepts of craving and aversion. We are chasing a high, instead of allowing ourselves to be open and waiting to receive these gifts from life.
Investing in the things that resonate with our hearts is how we create joyful and meaningful lives. Understanding the hearts deepest desires and dedicating your life to these is what matters most in life.
Being aware of these different types of resonance happening within us and befriending each for the information it is giving us, helps us use them to make wise decisions.
Mindfulness is often described as the ability to pay attention to what is happening, the biggest barriers to this are fear and judgement.
Cultivating mindfulness is about creating room in our experience for seeing whatever is here, without shutting down or rejecting aspects of it. Through this we can create a sense of clarity about what is happening.
In practice we are undoing our automatic judgements and fear-based responses to things so that our perception becomes less narrowed or clouded. Simultaneously, we are opening our hearts to connect with what is here.
Ultimately, the way to mindfulness is through embodying a clear mind and an open heart. This allows us to engage with the world in a way that increases love and understanding.
Here are some questions for helping you reflect on your practice and how you could develop it. Choosing one or two to focus on is a good way to start:
It is having open hearts and minds that allows us to be engaged with the world in an open, spacious way. These practices help us with that.
Metta (or loving kindness/ friendliness) meditation is traditionally done by imagining a series of people, starting with our loved ones, and saying scripts in our minds like, ‘may you be happy, may you be well’. This works for some people, but I find it a little formal.
I prefer to relax into a state of friendliness. Thinking about children that I love or animals that I find cute is a good way to access this state. If you’re feeling tense, looking at pictures or videos of some cute animals before you start can really help. Place your awareness in your heart space if you can and enjoy embodying this state of being relaxed and open.
During walking meditation or in daily life, I sometimes just say ‘hey’ to things in my mind to remind myself to open to them in a friendly way. Like, ‘hey tree’, ‘hey snail’, ‘hey stranger walking down the street’ etc. etc.
While you are meditating and in this state you can also imagine some people or situations that you find more challenging and see if you can retain a feeling of relaxed friendliness. We are trying to ‘wear in’ the feeling so that we are more likely to be able to stay in it during our days.
Meditating on spaciousness helps us open our minds. Instead of fixating on things, we are creating space for them to be there.
For this meditation we are focusing on creating a sense of what that spaciousness would be like. We can make space for our thoughts and the perception of our sensations, emotions and feelings to arise in our experience.
Step 1: Body
Step 2: Heart
Step 3: Mind
Step 4: Soul
If we create enough spaciousness we can allow all thoughts and feelings to be expressed without needing to resist them. This may cause our sense of separate awareness to dissolve into the space around us and we notice that our minds don’t exist separately from it. We get access to experiencing our mind as a sense organ.
This can create a huge amount of spaciousness in how we perceive the world and ourselves. When we realise that these thoughts and feelings don’t say anything about us in the way that we thought, it can open up a completely different perspective on life.
In order to survive we will have created a split between our hearts and our minds.
Our hearts want to be loved and our mind wants to be safe. Safety is the most important thing, so we learn to adopt the perceptions and ways of being that keep us alive even if it means rejecting parts of ourselves or others.
Part of this is the ways we have learned to see and behave in order to be accepted by our primary caregivers when we were growing up and as adults by our peers. To feel safe in life, we need to be accepted in the tribe.
When there are strong feelings within us, met with a situation that we have learned is unsafe, this triggers us.
We believe that the way that our mind behaves is the ‘right’ way, as that is what we have learned is going to keep us safe. This reactive, triggered state creates a lot of black and white thinking and a strong sense of what is wrong and right, as opposed to an open curiosity or a compassionate understanding of the situation.
This can manifest as an inner critic or a predator inside us. We either let this eat away at us or we turn it back around on the outside world.
We end up with a ‘big’ part of us, that is the judgemental critic whose role it is to keep us safe, and a ‘small’ part of us, that is a helpless inner child that isn’t getting its emotional needs met.
Unless we are able to revisit the trauma and release the script that says we have to maintain these judgements to keep us safe, it gets stuck inside us and we repeat the cycle.
These practices help us explore this dynamic within ourselves and hopefully get a bit more space around them so we feel less at risk when we are in a situation that triggers us.
Step 1: Body
Step 2: Heart
Step 3: Mind
Step 4: Soul
An example of this in practice:
Step 1: Body
Step 2: Heart
Step 3: Mind
Step 4: Soul
Practices like this can be deeply transformational. They can work on an archetypal and energetic level freeing up space in our system and allowing us to let go of trauma that shapes our experience.
They can also just be useful for becoming more aware of the processes that are inside of us. It may be that a pattern or dynamic requires some therapy or support in order to process it fully but this is a useful way to become aware of it in a creative, non-judgemental way.
There are many varied states of consciousness that we are able to open to in practice. Lots of traditions see them as the highest forms of realisation that you can have, but I prefer to see them as different and interesting ways of experiencing reality.
If we have an open mind about these experiences it creates a sense of spaciousness that means we can reach them with more of a sense of ease and we can more safely adventure into them.
Lots of people claim to have the ‘one way’ of reaching certain states. It is true that there are specific practices that we can do that will help us open our hearts and minds so we are more likely to experience the world in a certain way.
I find it more useful to perceive these states like a friendship. They are not something we can ‘get’. We give ourselves to the practice because we are developing our relationship with our own consciousness and if we experience something pleasant or interesting as a result, we can appreciate that. We can build a stable relationship with certain states where we feel we know them well and can access them more easily.
Balancing the masculine and feminine of love and understanding within us really helps with these. The more you can feel things and let the meaning of things resonate through you, the more you will be able to experience and appreciate the beauty and insight that these states can create. Rather than seeing them as some kind of concrete thing that you have attained.
Some of the things that I am talking about are the jhanas, shamanic journeying, feeling like you are love, dissolving our bodies into pleasant sensations, meeting demons and entities, unity consciousness and feeling the whole of reality as vibrations or energy.
All of these are fun in and of themselves to experience. They can also give us access to deep insight and meaning in life, but the more we can let go of the idea that we are there to ‘get’ those things, the more we can appreciate the process itself.
These are all part of our relationship with life and the Universe. They are a way for us to understand it better and find more intimacy with it. Deepening this relationship naturally gives us insight and changes us as people, like any close relationship.
We can enjoy the opportunity to open into the mystery of life. A lot of it is inexplicable and can only be expressed through poetry or words that convey a meaning and a resonance, rather than the details of what is experienced.
These states can also increase our capacity to meet our experience in general with more awareness and spaciousness as they are often revealing something about the fundamental nature of reality.
When we can see deeper into the nature of reality, we realise that things aren’t always as they seem. We have access to fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world that can reduce how attached we feel to our thoughts and perceptions.
Psychedelic drugs also give us access to these states. The benefit of reaching them through meditation is that we are more likely to be able to bring back the insights and meaning into our daily lives, because we have opened the pathways in our hearts and minds in a sustainable way. However, safely taking psychedelic drugs can be a profound and useful experience for deepening our relationship with the world, experiencing new ways of looking and having some fun.
While all these meditative states do need to be treated with respect, I don’t believe that being secretive about them is particularly helpful for anyone. People experience these things by accident in their daily lives and often in meditation without realising it. It is important for us to be able to find a way to connect with our experiences and make sense of them in a way that is meaningful to us. Without a safe space to hear and talk about them, people will repress their experiences and be much more likely to be disturbed by them.
The resources that I have found particularly helpful when approaching and understanding these states are:
All of these are very open in the way they talk about their topics and allowing and friendly towards altered states of consciousness.
Daniel and I also recorded a conversation in which I speak openly about some of my altered states of consciousness and we discuss and describe the best ways for people to support others who are accessing these states so that they feel safe and rewarding.