Sometimes things move so fast that they seem to slip into a blur of constant motion, appearing to stretch and morph as they slide through the world. There is a stream just outside my window here and, after it rains, it rushes into a single streak of rapids. Perhaps, outside your window, there’s a flood of traffic streaming past; if you half close your eyes, perhaps the brake lights stretch into lines behind the vehicles?
The last month or so has felt rather like that for many of us, I think. With events and milestones flashing past at such a rate that they have blurred into a haze of relentless movement around us. At such times, it can be easy to feel swept off our feet, as though the flow of things will just carry us along with it – we tumble and bob and are whisked along by the rapids without feeling much control. For many, this certainly seems to have been the experience of the easing of lock-down and the re-opening of social spaces. It’s like someone opened the hatch on a pressurized plane and we’re all instantly sucked outside into a giant jumble of confusion and anxiety...
However, at such times, it could be helpful to remember that we have some other choices. Rather than being swept off our feet, we might take a step back. It just takes a moment to take a breath, to remove ourselves from the flow, and to watch it for a while, just letting the stream follow its course without riding it. When things are moving too fast, perhaps it might be wise or skilful to slow ourselves down?
When it comes to the practice of mindfulness in such times, it can be supportive for us to keep things as simple as possible. Many of you have been in touch to ask about new, additional, or specifically tailored practices to prepare you for ‘going back into the world’ again. And, I guess, if I were trying to sell something to you, I might create some new packaging for some simple practices and tell you that you’ll feel better if you buy this special new ‘back into society’ practice. However, I’m not trying to sell you anything! Instead, I think I’ll just make some suggestions about how mindfulness might support you through this anxious time. In fact, I think you already know...
Remember from our course that the cultivation of mindfulness encourages us to create a little extra distance between ourselves and the general commotion of life, helping us to live a little more spaciously, so that we can more fully appreciate (and more skilfully intervene in) the events around and within us. The more overwhelming those events become, the simpler and more basic can be our practice. In other words, when the speed of things is causing anxiety, slow down! This doesn’t need to mean that we attempt to go through our days out of synch with the world, moving very slowly like our friend the spaced-out zombie. But it does mean that we can often benefit from taking deliberate, intentional moments to pause, to feel sincerely, to see clearly.
So, what might this mean in practice? Perhaps for you it might mean pausing before you open your frontdoor? Maybe you’ve stuck a note on the inside of the door that reminds you, ‘Pause. Breathe’? Before you go outside, take a moment to pause, to stand a little straighter so that you can feel your integrity and dignity in your spine. See what it might be like to use that moment to check in with yourself – what’s in your awareness at that moment? What’s going on in your body, in your thoughts, in your emotions? What is ... this? Just some gentle curiosity. And then see how it might feel to gather all that awareness into your breath for a few deep cycles, perhaps grounding into your feet on the door mat. And then, finally, re-opening to the world as you turn the door handle and step outside.
You’ll recognise that little routine as our ‘three step breathing space’ (Awareness, Gathering, Expanding – AGE), which is just about as simple and quick as our mindfulness practices get. And it’s completely portable. You can do it on your doorstep before you go out, at your desk at work, in the line-up at the store ... anywhere, any time. It’s fast, effective, and free.
When things are going extra fast around us, it can be easy to forget or neglect even such a brief practice. So, perhaps you might experiment with setting an alarm or a countdown timer on your watch or phone. If you can set it to go off randomly, even better! Each time it chimes, just pause whatever you’re doing, open your awareness, gather your attention into your breath for a few cycles, and then re-open to your surroundings and move on. It might just take a few seconds.
I may have told you this before, but I have a little ‘mindfulness bell’ hanging in the doorframe of my office. It’s a small bell with a sail attached to the clapper. This means that the bell rings gently whenever there’s a breeze or a draft. Each time it rings, I pause and breathe. But also, if I rush through the doorway in a hurry, the breeze I generate is enough to ring the bell. So, when I’m rushing, I have to pause and breathe. The only way I can pass through that doorway without the bell chiming is if I pause before I pass through, take a breath, and then walk through calmly. In other words, when I’m mindful, the bell doesn’t ring. When I’m not, it does, reminding me to pause and breathe.
Some of you have been in touch to ask about how we’re doing with the promised updates for our course, and I’m delighted to be able to tell you that we’re ready to launch them tomorrow (5 July) on Coursera and FutureLearn. I think it’s fair to say that this is our most substantial update ever. The team in Leiden has been working extremely hard to get everything ready, and I’m so grateful for all their dedication during such a challenging and difficult period. It’s really a honour to work with them.
The update adds two entirely new modules to the course, ‘Mindfulness, trauma, and social justice,’ and ‘Mindfulness, nature, and the land.’ Each new module includes new video lectures, a new practice, new discussion sections and quizzes, and a selection of new interviews with expert colleagues. Adding to our existing pool of interviews, which began with Willem Kuyken (Oxford) and Stephen Batchelor (Bodhi College), we are joined by Susan Woods and Patricia Rockman (both from the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto), Sydney Spears (Kansas), Elizabeth Stanley (Georgetown), Jeff Corntassell (Victoria), and Dawn Scott (Spirit Rock). In total, we’re adding about 6 hours of new video material.
The two new modules focus on areas of mindfulness that have become increasingly urgent over the last couple of years. So, in the new module 5, we go into some depth about dealing with adverse experiences in mindfulness practice and the development of ‘trauma-sensitive mindfulness.’ We explore powerful questions of social justice, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, and complex trauma. And then in the new module 6, we spend time considering the significance of the natural world and our embodiment in nature as elements in the practice of mindfulness. This module traverses Buddhism, natural sciences, gardening, and politics, including some issues around territorial acknowledgement and respect for Indigenous peoples and cultures.
Anyway, I can’t wait to see what you make of the new materials, even if you completed the course a long time ago. I sincerely hope they’re of benefit. And I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who made donations to our little ‘dana box.’ Without those funds we would not have been able to produce this new content. I’m humbled by the dedication and trust of this community of learning, and I’m delighted that we’re able to continue offering this course as a free service, especially through these tough and challenging times.
Wishing you safety, happiness, and freedom from enmity,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.