Living as art, mindfulness and alchemy

Alchemy is the alluring art of turning ordinary base metals into gold. For many years scientists spent hours mixing powders, fluids, cleaning soot and smoke off their faces in their attempts to succeed and find untapped wealth. Some were driven mad by their efforts but all ultimately failed and now alchemy is a long forgotten footnote in history. But, they were approaching it wrong, it is possible!  The mistake they made is that they aimed too low; they only considered metals. How about turning anything mundane into gold? Don’t think of King Midas, this is not that kind of notion. This take on alchemy involves turning everyday living into something better, something golden. So it’s a different kind of alchemy- one that involves seeing life as golden. By practising the art of mindful alchemy everyday we become an artist;  we practice ‘artfulness’  or if you prefer we practice art in everyday living.

Art in my life involves the practice of daily activities in a way that uplifts my consciousness and reveals the spiritual and aesthetic harmony in my world.  Indeed, the late Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa said:

meditative experience might be called genuine art. Such art is not designed for exhibition or broadcast. Instead, it is a perpetually growing process in which we begin to appreciate our surroundings in life, whatever they may be-it doesn’t necessarily have to be good, beautiful, and pleasurable at all. The definition of art, from this point of view, is to be able to see the uniqueness of everyday experience. Every moment we might be doing the same things-brushing our teeth every day, combing out hair every day, cooking our dinner every day. But that seeming repetitiveness be-come unique every day. A kind of intimacy takes place with the daily habits that you go though and the art involved in it. That’s why is called art in everyday life.

Chogyam Trungpa

This concept always leaves me with a sense of involvement in my own life. It gives me a confident resolve and fearlessness to put attention and love into my world. This blog started in part as an inspiration from his writing. The idea of writing was difficult for me, partly due to some shyness and partly to avoid conceit.  Chogyam cautioned:

When we talk about art, we could be referring to somebody deliberately expressing the beauty and frightfulness or the mockery and crudeness of the world that we live in, in the form of poetry, pictures or music. That kind of art could be said to be somewhat deliberate art. It is not so much for yourself, but it is more an exhibition, however honest and genuine the artist may be. Such an artist may say he simply composed his poem because he felt that way. But if that’s the case, why should he write it down on a piece of paper and date it? If its just purely for himself, it does not need to be recorded. Whenever a need for recording you work of art is involved, then there is a tendency toward awareness of oneself: “If I record that brilliant idea I’ve developed, in turn, quite possible accidentally, somebody might happen to see it and think we of it.” There’s that little touch involved, however honest and genuine it may be.

Chogyam Trungpa

So I am left with this dichotomy, I started this blog just for me but there is this little touch of exhibition, subscribers, viewers, etc. Trungpa went on to say, never sell your art, doing so destroys the art of it.

Getting back to topic, the notion of living art really uplifts my daily world, specifically 1) fearlessness of expression and 2) that it’s okay not to have a purpose other than just the appreciative awareness and love for what is taking place.

Not meaning to state the obvious – perhaps I have been a slow learner – but for me this needs constant learning and reminding. I suspect this is cultural. We are conditioned beings and in the West we have been conditioned to obsess about efficiency in our lives – contemporary western culture demands the efficient. It demands time savings, cost savings, faster, bigger, stronger. However this attitude really is an alienation of life.

Erich Fromm, another favourite author of mine, talks a lot about people living alienated lives. Essentially that people see the results of their actions as more important than the process of the activity.  In doing so people have become alienated from the main bulk of their lives, the part which involves the actual activities. Modern efficiency really does seem to be the death of life and also the death of much aesthetic in life. Consider this common scenario; if I am travelling somewhere and have a Sat Nav, I can find the fastest route – efficient, best then? But best for who? There is a slower, more costly but more scenic route. Since my care is not just to arrive at the destination, I’ll choose to take the less efficient route. I can enjoy the travelling, focus on it, care for it, love it rather than just try to be done with it as quickly as possible. To care only about arriving would relegate the whole journey to a chore, I would become alienated from the journey itself. So screw efficiency. I’ll drive slower and enjoy the journey.

The practice of art in everyday life involves making choices and taking actions that give care to the experience, taking the scenic route, feeling things, smelling the roses, essentially  being alive. The daily mundane present an opportunity of working with the material of life as an artist rather than as a chore. Cleaning the kitchen, folding clothes and interacting with people can all be undertaken in an artist manner.  I give care and full attention to what I am doing and put effort into producing some experience that is 1) conscious and 2) hopefully pleasant.  Rather than deriving satisfaction just from the result, which is but a tiny fleeting part of life, I can focus on the beauty and pleasure in the tasks themselves. This is the alchemy – ordinary life becomes gold.

Alchemy then and the ‘Art in everyday Life’ is about having the courage and fearlessness to do what I feel is right, just because it is pleasing, without a clear goal or need for a result, but just for the experience it brings. So now, I fold my clothes with care and attention, I sit upright, I smell the flowers, I look at the landscape and I do all manner of ‘inefficient’ things and doing so makes me happier and it makes me more alive.

Conscious parenting: When the going gets tough

Anyone that has kids knows that parenting can be really challenging. However, like most suffering in life, it’s workable and can be transformed with the right mind set of conscious parenting. I find that parenting still pushes my psychological limits but I do have a workable strategy that I want to share. The key is to change my attitude to the situation.

Conscious parenting -

Even simple things like a child’s bedtime can be a challenge as a parent. Take my youngest of 6 years as an example.  His routine involves, cleaning his teeth, changing for bed, an upside down ride which is me carrying him upside by his legs to kiss his sister good night, a story in bed and then some kisses and cuddles. Simple enough on paper. However, the critical challenge around bedtime is that everyone is tired, for my part, a single parent, I have been busy with them for 12 hours and would really like the quiet time of the evening to arrive, to arrive as soon as possible. It is that mindset that causes the problems.

There was a time when I would try to rush this routine so I could get to the ‘me time’ quicker. This led to me feeling tense, objections from my boy and to a general feeling of suffering in myself, the feeling that “I just did not want to be doing it”. There is a better way though. A more conscious approach to parenting uses acceptance, concentration and mindfulness of the now to bring peace into these moments. How does it work?

Firstly, I surrender to the moment and give away the desire for anything other than what is taking place. I drop that desire to get to the ‘me time’ and instead put all of my awareness into the tasks at hand. In essence, I align myself with events rather than aligning myself in opposition to them.

Conscious parenting -

Mindfulness then becomes important once I have made that mental commitment to let go of my desires in this moment and to concentrate. Mindfulness at this point involves not judging what takes place but instead witnessing it more fully. This allows me to look at my boy more fully, suddenly I might see his face, his eyes, his smile, I sometimes see his tiredness, his fatigue and grumpiness, this allows me to feel compassion to his state of being and to feel love. While engaged in the task, I try to engage with them fully, for example I might read his story with gusto rather than as a chore, I might really look at the pictures in the book too, I just try to concentrate on the task and not to let my mind wish it were elsewhere. This approach is very nourishing for me and also for him.

A great inspiration in this attitude for me comes from the “Three questions” short story by Leo Tolstoy (spoilers of this story incoming) and I often find the answer to these three questions come to my mind when I find myself in an objectionable moment. The story involves a King seeking answers to three questions, namely 1) What is the most important moment? Now, it’s the only moment we can influence, 2) What is the most important thing in life? The thing you are doing, in the case of a child’s bedtime it is the child himself and 3) What is most important to do? To care, to care for the moment and the person, to love. So that’s my approach to parenting when it gets tough. It’s really liberating to feel a stressful moment collapse into something more peaceful. It’s like suddenly finding myself in the eye of a hurricane.

Its not something I always remember to practice, I am no saint nor Buddha, but when I do remember it brings about a transformation of the situation. Suddenly the situation becomes more alive, more pleasant, more peaceful. I hope others find this approach useful. It’s really nothing particularly special. It just an application of acceptance and mindfulness practice into everyday life, someone of my personal art of living well.

Short: ‘Do something today to challenge your ego’

How about a gentle exercise of conscious awareness? Rather than strengthening the ego, why not try to knock it down a little.  How? Just consider this for a moment:

Expose something you find awkward,
Discard something clung to,
Admit something you fear to admit,
Throw a caution to the wind,
Jump without looking,
Trust the ground of your being,
Be free.

If you find this notion scary, then hold that feeling because that’s your ego.  The something that you hold dear, the part of you that you could not bear to expose – even to yourself – that tiny piece of the intolerable.

Can you imagine what would happen if you let it go?  Just one small thing, perhaps just admitting something to yourself.  Try, everything will be okay.  In fact, you might find you feel a lot lighter without the burden.


Mindfulness and overthinking abstraction

Abstraction is a fundamental part of human thought and conscious, something we use throughout our work, our studies and our daily life. Most people exist in a world of abstraction, so what is it? and why do we do it?

Abstraction is a fundamental part of human thought and consciousness, something we use throughout our work, our studies and our daily life.  Most people exist in a world of abstraction, so what is it? and why do we do it?

Essentially abstraction is a reductionist approach as it looks to take away aspects of the object of consideration, specifically to take away their uniqueness. Unique things are concrete and specific. Abstractions are general and non-unique.  This is a central part of Buddhism and modern mindfulness practices.

over abstraction and how to be mindful - from the

Abstraction seeks commonalities between things so that things can be operated upon within our minds. As mind entities abstractions do not have a physical manifestation. In contrast concrete things have a physical manifestation. For example, the concept of a brick is abstract, whereas the realisation of an actual brick is unique and concrete.

over abstraction and how to be mindful - from the over abstraction and how to be mindful - from the

Concepts are real in the mind, but not real in the physical world. Many spiritual practices such as meditation and mindfulness attempt to pull consciousness back from the abstract concepts, which they often claim is not alive since it only exists in the mind. Instead such practices try to bring conscious back to the uniqueness of the concrete things. If abstractions are reductionist then an opposite approach, mindfulness,  is expansive as it encompasses all of the thing in its entirety. Mindfulness encourages anti-abstraction, so that when we meet an object in the world, we do not see the abstraction but rather see the thing in its fullness. In doing so we move from a mode of thinking and unreality and back into a mode of open full perception and reality.

A real brick has a uniqueness that if I try to describe now I will unavoidably reduce. The only true way to know a concrete thing is to experience it, it’s unique texture arrangement, colour, flaws etc. however my ‘words’ already reduce the experience and are an abstraction.

Indeed, part of the problem with excessive abstraction stems from the need for communication. If every experience is unique, ‘how to we communicate this to each other?’  We have to abstract to speak and speaking and writing is always an abstraction of some level. Another part of over abstraction is that we perceive far too much for our brains to process everything individually.  Abstraction allows us to deal with things that we encounter in the world without having to really see them or think about them. We can pick up a pen and write without really thinking, in doing so we don’t need to focus on the pen or the paper but rather the words. This can be extended to the desk, the chair, the light, etc. Abstraction allows us to ignore the non-essential, it thus save us time and thought. It is perhaps for these reasons that human society has evolved massive repositories of abstractions, from language, semantics to domain concepts.

This is problematic though, as the abstract mode of existence becomes the only mode of existing for many people and as such they see a reduced world. When we go to the park, we see the abstract forms, labelled, compartmentalised and therefore reduced. When we stop and really look at the uniqueness of things, which takes more time, we see the world more fully, more clearly, more alive. Our world and our existence becomes alive. This however takes time, it also takes a conscious effort. The practice of mindfulness is about making this reconnection with real things and therefore a reconnection with reality

over abstraction and how to be mindful - from the

Finding the gaps

Mind the gap, please mind the gap.  If you travel the London underground you will hear it regularly and see numerous signs and placards ‘Mind the gap!’ I like these announcements as they encourage me to practice peace of mind.

 Seeking the gap?

Yes, I enjoy the gaps.  Not the physical gaps between platform and train that the warnings of the London underground caution;  I’m not a lemming.   The gaps I seek are those peaceful gaps in thought.

The gap of thoughts is that moment of tranquility between the self-chatter that our minds produce. The sometimes small pauses between discursive thoughts from our rambling mind. The problem, though, is that the untamed mind – the mind that always talks and thinks about anything and everything – is often far too loud and noisy to allow any gaps.


So to find gaps, I meditate, not always conventionally.  And part of my meditation practice involves witnessing the gaps. Let me share my main approaches to finding these gaps in my consciousness and perhaps you would be kind enough to share yours.  My methods include:

1. The gap between breaths

During breath meditation (anapanasati) I often find it difficult to stay concentrated on the feeling of my breath moving in and moving out. The problem is that my mind, like an untrained puppy dog, will not sit still, but instead wanders from thought to thought. However, there is this brief moment when a breath transitions from drawing in to drawing out. In this moment, there is complete stillness. Having the alertness to witness these moments of stillness is a powerful method of bringing the wandering mind back from its thoughts. Furthermore, having the resolve to wait (like a cat watching a mouse hole) brings a sharp alertness to my practice of meditation. It also finds the gap in consciousness.

2. Turning when walking

Walking meditation also offers regular points to bring the focus of a meditation on mindfulness back to the task. In walking meditation, the object of the meditation is to simply walk, concentrating on the feeling of the feet on the floor. The aim is to feel as much as possible the sensations of the foot touching the ground, embracing the ground, then leaving the ground. However, as with breath meditation, my mind behaves like an attention-seeking puppy, so again it is useful to have some regular point to regain attention on the object of meditation. So, to achieve this, I set myself a small walking path; maybe 15 steps. At the end of the 15 steps I turn in a different direction and during that transition I find a gap in thoughts and reassert my attention to my feet.

3. The pause between spoken words

Another technique I sometimes use during meditation involves a simple set of words or a phrase that is repeated (a mantra). The mantra becomes the object of the meditation. With mantra meditation, the object of focus becomes the perception/feelings of the words. I find myself concentrating on the sensation of the sound. However, my mind can use virtually anything as a means for distraction and indulgence, including the words of the mantra. The beginning and end of each word or the mantra offers a small gap, a transition, and I can use this to reassert my focus and to enjoy the peace of the brief moment between things.

What and where are your gaps?

These are my main three techniques for finding gaps in thought during meditation. I would love to hear any techniques readers might have. Please feel most welcome to share your practice in the comments section below and I’ll add them to this post.

Peace and love,


Update: Reader submissions taken from comments

Observing and saying thank-you.  Anna Brzeski

Walking and using beadsVictoria

Pause between the dishes, pause between the laundryMatt

Breathing to the heartJanice

Observing and catching the thoughts without judgement, just noticing ’thinking’, Emily

The gap between the notes in music, Alex Colvin