an interview with christopher titmuss-senior mindfulness teacher and founder of mttc
You have campaigned on green issues for decades. If there was one aspect of modern living that you had the power to change, what would it be?
If I had to choose one thing, I would say that there has to be a major shift in our priorities, from personal and family self-interest to one which gives concern to people, creatures and the environment. This would involve a raised consciousness of what it is to be truly caring and empathic; to bring to this world the best of our humanity.
You trained as a Buddhist Monk for six years and lived in a cave for nine months. What aspects of these experiences did you find most difficult?
In my early twenties, I spent a lot of time travelling between England and The East, visiting between fifteen and twenty countries over a three-year period. I loved the freedom of being on the road, but I felt a need for stillness, silence and solitude. I was interested in meditation but knew nothing of it. The Buddhist monastery provided a wonderful environment, but I did find it difficult, at first, to give up being the nomadic wanderer. I was hopeless at learning foreign languages and there was only one person in the monastery who could speak both Thai and English, so the opportunity to talk was minimal. During the first few weeks of being an ordained novice with a shaved head and robes, I did sometimes wonder ‘What have I done?’ But after about twenty days, something clicked and the process of meditation came to me. I could now fully appreciate that the monastic life and meditation were precious and important.
The nine months I spent living in a cave as a fully ordained monk presented challenges
At night, staying awake was initially a real challenge for the first week or two. I practiced yoga on the ledge outside the cave to keep my energies flowing.
The only light came from my tiny lamp or candles. The light’s range was less than a metre. Mindfulness was necessary because of the snakes, scorpions and spiders which I encountered.
I got used to co-habitation with various creatures. It was a lovely period of my life. Incidentally, for food, I had to walk down to the tiny fishing village about twenty-five minutes away where kind individuals would put food in my begging bowl to take back to my cave.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to mindfulness?
I have an issue with the word “advice”- there is a vice in it. Advice can be a lovely thing, but only if the listener requests it. Telling others what to do gets people’s backs up and that’s understandable. But when asked, I have four pieces of advice for those new to mindfulness:
1. Value the present moment. Mindfulness involves bringing more empathy, care and attention to the ordinary things, whether that’s doing the washing up, having a particular conversation, or going about one's daily work.
2. There are situations which are really worth reflecting on. For example, there may have been a difficult encounter with another person where we got caught up in an argument, or experienced tension or stress. It’s important that once we’ve chilled out we should ask “What do I need to do in the future to handle this kind of situation more wisely… so as to be less reactive?”
3. It’s helpful for each human being to have a sense of their own values and direction in life. That would include giving priority to something with a higher value to it, such as empathy, service to others, or expressions of creativity. Sustaining that sense of priority is really, really important.
4. Be mindful of precious moments. We look up at the night sky and see deep into the universe. We listen to a piece of music that touches a deep place within. We experience a sense of joy in deep communication... The sense of the spiritual, of the sacred, reveals the expanse of the human experience.
Putting these four applications of mindfulness together nourishes ourselves and others.
What do you normally eat for breakfast?
I enjoy my morning cup of tea, usually with a piece of toast with tahini or sliced tomato on it. Often, I will squeeze out a couple of centimetres of fresh lemon juice and drink this mixed with warm water. I find this drink wonderfully cleansing and enjoy feeling it going right down through my digestive system.
My breakfast is small. I eat my main meal at lunchtime, my diet being ninety-five percent vegan. In the evening I may eat something modest such as a smoothie with fresh fruit, soup or a little hot food.
I find that my metabolism has slowed with age. Now, in my seventies, I eat about half the amount I would have eaten thirty years ago.
What was the last thing that made you angry and how did you respond?
I would be hard-pressed to think of any situation where I felt anger towards an individual. But I do have a reasonably sharp voice of concern and criticism. My irritations are usually about social or political issues. Sometimes others comment that my books, articles, or blogs sound angry. If it’s a blog I have the power to change the tone to get the same point across.
Anger is a hopeless way of being listened to.
You are an author of over twenty books and a highly respected international mindfulness teacher. How do you like to spend your free time?
My days are full and rich. With my hand on my heart, I can say that I feel free to do what I want to do. So I don’t distinguish between free time and work time.
I love connecting with others in my various roles, enjoy the outdoors, reading and listening to music.
Before the pandemic, I would often go for a week in Cornwall, staying by the sea, making the most of the opportunity to meditate, write, take long clifftop walks and enjoy total silence. At home I am a regular at my local coffee shop, The Hairy Barista, enjoying their excellent oat latte. These days (during lockdown) it’s takeaway only.
What techniques did you use to help keep cheerful during lockdown?
I thought lockdown would be a quiet period but I found that the opportunity for outreach, by Skype, E-mail and Zoom, increased immensely.
Something else which contributed to my positivity was feeding the birds in my small back garden. I noticed eight or nine different species which visit regularly and even got to know the individual personalities of some of those birds. My surname, Titmuss is actually Anglo-Saxon from ‘titmouse’ – a little bird”.
The global pandemic has had a negative impact; an increase in abuse, domestic violence, isolation and increased many major health issues. But the pandemic also helped to keep some sense of appreciation of things which had changed for the better. There was a massive decrease in consumerism and reduced pollution from transport. There was also a sense of connection with seven and a half billion other human beings – that we were all in this together.
During lockdown, I felt cheerful knowing that friends and family were well. These connections became more important than ever. I loved the silence at home. As a monk, I had years of silence. We can know and experience a deep appreciation for silence by learning to rest in silence. Silence is sacred.