Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Mindful Enlightenment

I've written a piece for the Face To Faith column in today's Guardian. It's on 21st century enlightenment thinking and how buddhism is developing in the West... You can read it here...
James Shaheen of Tricycle magazine has blogged further on the theme here...

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A week in sport - meditation special

There's been a glut of stories this week linking meditation practice to sporting erformance. It started last Saturday night when ITV commentator Andy Townsend exhorted England's footballers to 'be mindful' several times during their opening world cup match against the USA, and continued in a subsequent Guardian piece reflecting on how England goalkeeper Robert Green might prepare his mind after the howler that led to the USA's goal - sports psychologist Damien Hughes advised Green to "concentrate on counting his breaths to steady himself". In the end, Green wasn't picked for the next match, so had plenty of time on the bench for some sitting meditation while his team-mates laboured through an even less cultured performance.

Meanwhile the LA Times has been reporting that Lakers centre Andrew Bynum has a pre-match meditation routine, inspired by "zen master" coach Phil Jackson. According to Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA finals history: "When players practise what is known as mindfulness - paying attention to what's actually happening - not only do they play better and win more, they also become more attuned to each other." Over on the East Coast, Miami Dolphins player Ricky Williams has gone one step further - he teaches a regular Wednesday night meditation class at Nova Southeastern University. Williams started practising in 2004 - he says finds it particularly helpful before NFL games. And Scottish golf pro George Murray has also been trying to improve his game by meditating. He's been reading Zen Golf, which has been credited with helping Vijay Singh. "It chills me out," says Murray. "I approach every shot as though it has no relevance."

There's plenty of evidence that meditation can create the kind of evenly-hovering attention that enables athletes to be in the zone. With practice, it becomes more possible to ride the waves of emotion that are inevitable during big events and to stay focused on the here and now moment of play, in balance with body, mind and environment. Handy for all of us, and not just during sport.

As for England's chances of progress to the next round of the world cup, the Jackson approach might well be an answer for Fabio Capello, who has already admitted his players' problems are in the mind. So, who's going to tell Wayne Rooney he needs to meditate?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Mindfulness and the Middle Ages

I've recently finished reading The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another And Made Money Instead, by Sue Gerhardt. The prime focus of her analysis is on the negative impact of current parenting styles - how the development of capitalism led to the cultural reinforcement of child-rearing practices that perpetuate a money-grabbing, 'me' culture, where we fail to acknowledge the benefit of good relationships. Drawing on psychology, neuroscience and history it's a grand, wide-ranging tour through our psychic landscape.

A few pages at the start of chapter 4 struck me more than any other. Describing the rise of the 'social brain' in Europe, Gerhardt references 'the civilising process' described by historian Norbert Elias as leading to an increase in self-awareness during the middle ages - the thesis is that "the medieval brain was in some respects like that of a very young child who lives for the moment and who has not yet developed great self-control", and that the move away from a feudal system towards a world that required more complex social relationships had an impact on people's brains and awareness levels. "As societies became more focused and organised," says Gerhardt, "so too did individual brains."

She doesn't use the word, but it sounds very much like Gerhardt - a meditation practitioner - is highlighting developments in mindfulness. She calls it "a gradual pooling of increased awareness", while she cites the historian Robin Briggs who described the process as 'a profound shift in conscisouness'. Gerhardt also says all personal and social development is linked to 'the capacity to pay attention', which is of course, a common definition of mindfulness.

I don't remember enough of my history studies to comment on how plausible the theories are, but I find it fascinating to imagine how Renaissance and enlightenment thinking, the rise in literacy and the industrial revolution might all have been sparked by a shift to greater mindfulness - that all of these developments were a product of Europeans beginning to relate to their minds in a different way. It is also perhaps interesting to speculate what further developments might ensue from a similar shift in consciousness now. Perhaps this time around we can make an evolutionary shift more consciously, using mindfulness and other practices to deliberately exercise the 'social brain', training ourselves to an ever more enlightened existence.

The Dalai Lama has joked that while westerners have made greater strides in exploring 'outer space', Tibetan buddhist practitioners, with the use of sophisticated mind training tools, have been way ahead in the exploration of 'inner space'. Perhaps now is the time when these two expressions of human creativity can be allied together for greater good.