Róisín Ingle on . . . the C and M words

. . . on the C and M words


You read and hear an awful lot in about mindfulness these days. A colleague told me recently it’s one of the words he’d like to ban. As far as he’s concerned it’s up there in the annoying stakes with the word “community”. “Have you noticed how everybody is a community these days?” he asked. The Farming Community. The Cycling Community. The Banking Community. The Cup-Cake Making Community.

The C word wrecks his head, the way we seem compelled to attach it to everyone as though there are no individual farmers or cyclists or cup-cake makers, as though they all speak with one voice.

When you think about it like that the C word is annoying and to a degree I can sort of see his point about the M word. Talk of mindfulness is everywhere. This newspaper’s Health and Family supplement carries “A Year of Living Mindfully’ column by Tony Bates and doctors are even recommending mindfulness as a health-giving concept which just shows how far it has jumped the shark. But what I mostly think about mindfulness is: you can’t have too much of a good thing.

One of the people we have to thank for the ubiquity of mindfulness died, aged 90, a couple of weeks ago.

I first heard his name – SN Goenka – around 15 years ago when my marriage was ending and I was pretending to everyone, including myself, that I was okay.

I let the “I’m fine”’ mask slip on the phone to my brother in India who suggested I go on a Vipassana course, except it was more of an order.

That first course was in Portumna, Co Galway: a silent meditation adventure run to exactly the same format as all the Vipassana adventures happening every day all over the world. Waking at 4am, learning how to meditate all day, sitting in a hall swathed in blankets: men on one side, women on the other. No talking, no eye contact, no reading, no phones. Just you and your monkey mind learning that there’s no point reacting to the pain shooting up your knees from sitting in the same position too long because the sensation, like everything else, will change. And then it does. And the lesson goes deeper. And you come out 10 days later bright-eyed and changed.

The meditation lessons came via Goenka’s audio and video instructions, his sometimes odd, sometimes comforting, voice telling you to observe rather than react to the sensations – good bad or indifferent – in your body and mind.

Goenka was a Burmese businessman who discovered the meditation technique when he had sought help for migraines. He became a teacher and, because of him, there are 150 Vipassana centres around the world where courses are run on a donation basis and where mindfulness is not a dirty word but the whole point.

I can’t claim to be a mindfulness expert or even to practice it regularly but I know the ancient ideas Goenka passed on have shaped and changed me for the better. Sometimes, when I’m totally over-reacting to some imagined slight or flailing in a pit of “woe is me” I see him in my mind’s eye, shaking his head from side to side, a bemused, benign look on his face. It stills me. I remember for a moment the impermanence of all things, even the annoying thing that’s just set me off on a spiral of doom.

It’s not that being exposed to these ideas has made me a person who lives constantly in the moment and is Zen around the clock. But I know that if I had no understanding of these truths, life would be even harder than it can sometimes be.

So when I read the news about Goenka’s death I smiled and thought about the three courses I’ve attended with various members of my family including my mother. (One stand out mometn was watching her try to make eye-contact to communicate she was not enjoying herself. “It felt like I was dead,” she said 10 days later when finally able to talk. But she’s glad she did it).So I smiled when I read the news and then I felt bad about it. Then I thought to myself, no, it’s what Goenka would have wanted.

Nobody cried at the funeral in his birthplace according to an LA Times. report. “What for?” asked one of his followers. “Life is always changing. If you’ve followed Goenka’s teaching you know the art of living is the art of dying”. To the Mindfulness Community his death was another beautiful reminder of that.

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