January 2018 meeting

We began by returning to Kabat Zinn's 'Full Catastrophe Living' and reading from Chapter 7 - 'Walking  Meditation'. Here are some extracts:

'Walking meditation involves intentionally attending to the experience of walking itself. It involves focusing on the sensations in your feet or your legs or, alternatively, feeling your whole body moving. You can also integrate awareness of your breathing with the experience of walking. 

We begin by making an effort to be fully aware as one foot contacts the ground, as the weight shifts to it, as the other foot lifts and moves ahead and then comes down to make contact with the ground in its turn .... when the mind wanders away from the feet or the legs or the feeling of the body walking, we simply bring it back when we become aware of it. To deepen our concentration, we do not look around at the sights, but keep our gaze focused in front of us. We also don't look at our feet. They know how to walk quite well on their own. It is an internal observation that is being cultivated, just the felt sensations of walking, nothing more.

Because we tend to live so unconsciously, we take things like the ability to walk very much for granted. When you start paying more attention to it, you will appreciate that it is an amazing balancing act, given the small surface area of our two feet. It took us about a year as a baby to be ready to learn this dynamic balancing act of locomotion...

To begin walking as a formal meditation practice, you should make the specific intention to do it for a period of time, say ten minutes, in a place where you can walk slowly back and forth in a lane. To keep mindfulness strong, it's a good idea to focus your attention on one aspect of your walking rather than changing it all the time. So if you have decided to pay your attention to your feet, then you should stay with your feet for that entire walking period, rather than changing to the breath or the legs or the full gait... Choose a pace that maximises your ability to pay attention. This might differ from one time to another, but in general it should be slower than your normal pace of walking.' (pp 114 - 116).

We followed with period of walking meditation outside in the grounds.

Then we had a rich period of enquiry. For some, the day was so beautiful that the choice was to be aware and stay with all the senses that were around, and to simply take this in (à la Rick Hanson). For others the miracle of walking was pre-eminent and moving. Then there was discovery - of the felt differences walking up and down slopes; of the challenges of walking (and so wobbling) slowly. There was also working - and experimenting with - the almost overwhelming sound of birdsong - allowing this into the foreground before then bringing the experience of walking back into main focus, and letting awareness of sound move into the background.

We continued with discussion around New Year mindfulness 'resolutions' - perhaps better stated as intentions for the year ahead. For some, online courses seem to offer regular structure to help with discipline and motivation, to help supplement daily practice. Motivation and intention opens up interesting and ongoing discussion - and individually we can be aware of the value of refreshing our practice, discovering new practices, returning to familiar ones, always open to looking at what motivates and guides us in the flux of our lives.

We had discussion around 'tonglen' - called by David Nichtern the practice of "giving and taking". He explains:  'When you practice giving and taking in the field, simply breathe in the difficulty and pain of the other person and breathe out a sense of spaciousness and relief, right there as the exchange is happening. Obviously other people do not need to know what you are doing for the practice to work.' (Awakening from the Daydream, p. 53). 

This practice of tonglen has been taught by many Buddhist teachers, more recently notably Pema Chödron (A Noble Heart, chapter 7) and is also recommended by western psychotherapists such as Germer (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion) and in a more secular 'take' on the practice, Van den Brink and Koster (Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living) use the term "Compassionate Breathing' to describe the practice of bringing compassion to one's own pain - and possibly others' pain - viscerally, without the use of words. 

Notably, Van den Brink and Koster add this rider within their 'Compassionate Breathing' practice: 

Please do not force yourself with this practice. Allow a playful and light-hearted attitude with an inner smile. If it helps you may also use the arms and hands, bringing them to your heart while breathing in and bringing them out from your body while breathing out.' (p 140)

As with all practices, but perhaps especially with tonglen or den Brink's and Koster's 'compassionate breathing', it's important to choose the practice wisely, especially if there is vulnerability. Softly, softly would be the approach here, always with timing and context in mind.  

Kelly McGonigal also uses adaptations of tonglen in her teachings and practice. We finished our session with a brief heart-breathing meditation drawn from her work.